BY: Kathleen E Frey
I’d like to tell you a story of beginnings and endings-you know, the stuff of all stories. It starts with my great-grandmother, who cut off most of her hand in a lawn mower the day before I was born. My mother, age 22, heard of the accident on day four of labor—a nearly-fatal ordeal that would lead to an emergency C-section and me. She and Gram were in the hospital at the same time, suffering in ways that were different and the same. That is, suffering endings that would lead to beginnings.
My brother and I had a secret song about Gram when we were young:
Gram, Gram with no hand,
Cut it off in a lawn mower fan…
That’s why she’s Gram.
(Clap on the up-beat and it’s really quite catchy.)
We weren’t sadistic kids, not even mean ones actually. It was, well, it was just the truth— the gruesome truth—and as such, it became a sort of folk song of our childhood. Hey, no one shames the farmer’s wife for amputating the tails of three already-disabled mice. We all just sing the song with its grisly truth and move on (clapping helps).
Before the accident, which was almost 30 years prior, Gram worked in her yard, took care of her home, upholstered furniture, and was an artist with crochet. She made beautiful blankets, stuffed animals, and intricate doilies with every stitch perfect. There’s not a room in our home without one of her pieces.
After Gram lost her hand, she still did all the things. The doctors could salvage her thumb and pointer finger, which are precisely the digits necessary for crochet. Thank God for all favors, big and small (I’m not sure which this was). She continued to crochet, care for herself, and play with her great-grandkids until she died at age 93. She even continued to drive with a modified steering wheel, which gives “Jesus take the wheel” a whole new meaning. And, Lord have mercy, she still mowed her own grass.
Today, I empathize with Gram, although I still have all ten fingers. I empathize thanks to my new born son, who hyperventilates at the mere thought of being unheld. By noon each day, my back and shoulder muscles burn and throb with the exertion of cradling a wobbly-headed babe on one arm while taking care of the rest of my life with the other. Even as I scribble these words, he’s nursing with his teeny-tiny, heavy, fuzzy head nestled in the crook of my non-dominant, but now much stronger, arm.
Throughout the day, I feel like collapsing from the effort required to do dishes, put away laundry, fix a meal, brush four mouths of teeth, open doors, and load cars minus an appendage. Yet, I have no memory of Gram ever seeming fatigued. She always seemed peaceful and poised, even with a sock covering her disfigured hand, even as her frail, purple-haired, elderly self. How is this possible?
There must have been a time of exhaustion and outright excruciation from the injury. The phantom fingers must have ached long after. There must have been weakness, bitterness, and grief, but we all knew her as none of the above. The only explanation I have is that she must have surrendered to the brutal truth, and by doing so, “Gram with No Hand” lived a beautiful life of motherhood, grandmotherhood and great-grandmotherhood. That’s why she exists as the determined, composed, patient woman of tedious tasks in my memory. “That’s why she’s Gram” afterall, and that’s what these writings are meant to do—surrender to brutal and beautiful truths. I hope you’ll share your truths here as well. Sing it and move on, as we women are apt to do.