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Nannie’s Hands

Hands can reveal a lot about a person. For example, a city slicker, a paper pusher, or someone who sits in front of a computer all day will generally have soft, smooth hands. Someone who does regular, hard, manual labor outdoors in all kinds of weather, however, generally has hard, rough, calloused hands. The former will have clean, clear, neatly trimmed nails; the latter has thick, broken nails with some degree of dirt showing under them.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character certainly would notice such things. I, too, noticed them when I was growing up. I noticed especially my maternal grandmother’s hands. (Nannie, we grandkids called her.)

Perhaps the most prominent feature of Nannie’s hands was that they showed unmistakable evidence of arthritis. The knuckles were swollen and enlarged, hard and painful-looking things. I especially recall the knuckle of her index finger, where the finger joined the palm of her hand. And the arthritis had drawn her index fingers inward toward the middle fingers in a painful curve. Her hands must often have hurt her because she continually rubbed them. And she sometimes massaged into them various lotions and ointments, such as Cas Walker’s Supra-Derm Salve.

I often wondered as I observed Nannie’s arthritic hands if there was a connection between arthritis and hard work because Nannie’s hands were always hard-working hands. If they were not busy doing some kind of work, she was patting the arm of her chair with them or tapping the side of her leg or rubbing them. Her hands were seldom still.

Nannie’s hands had washed piles and piles of clothes long before she got an automatic wringer washer. I recall Mother’s recounting how Mondays were wash days. They built a big, hot fire back in the yard, heated water, and then carried it to the back porch, where they poured it into a large tub. In went the dirty clothes and the lye soap. And then Nannie scrubbed the clothes on an old washboard, the hot water and the lye burning her hands bright red. Then those strong hands rinsed the clothes and wrung the water from them before hanging them on the clothesline to dry in the bright sun and the clear country air.

Nannie’s hands were also busy in the kitchen, preparing and then frying or baking various foods. Peeling and mashing potatoes, shelling peas, breaking and stringing beans, peeling and slicing apples or peaches, or kneading and rolling out bread dough. She was always fixing–or had just fixed–something, so there was always something to eat at Nannie’s house. Once could always count on her having some kind of dessert in the kitchen. Coconut cake. Stack cake. Chocolate cake. Apple pie. (Her crusts were always what we kids described as “stout,” meaning that one could hold a piece of pie in hand and eat it without its breaking apart.) And my favorite, fried apple pies. One of them was a meal in itself, almost as good as a Moon Pie. Like a Moon Pie, one of Nannie’s fried apple pies and an RC Cola were sure to ruin a guy’s supper!

Nannie’s hands were also expressive. She used them a lot when she talked, gesturing, pointing, waving–all motions designed (subconsciously, of course) to further communicate whatever she was saying. And they often covered her mouth–not only when she was suddenly surprised by something or alarmed by what she had just heard but also when something had tickled her and she was trying to suppress a laugh.

But Nannie’s hands–arthritic, disfigured, tired, and worn though they were–were most of all kind and gentle hands. They could as easily wipe away a tear, calm a fear, comfort homesickness, and clean a scrape as they could carry in a heavy bucket of coal to feed her hungry Warm Morning stove. They could as easily and gently caress and pat the hand of a young grandson just going off to college, giving tactile proof of promised prayers, as they could grab and break off a switch with which to administer grandmotherly discipline.

To some people, Nannie Summers’s hands might have seemed unsightly, perhaps even ugly. But to me, those hands were among the most beautiful and most lovely hands on earth.

What memories or thoughts do others have when they look at your hands or mine?

(Excerpt from Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee, available at

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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