It always amazed me, how she made such intricate and beautiful things with those hands.
My great-grandmother’s name was Eva. She was short, stocky, and she wielded herself with surety. Her laugh, like her voice, was round and full, the edges barbed from years of smoking and the resulting emphysema. She was equally at home commanding a game of cards as she was a kitchen full of women in the church hall, doing both in the comfort of sensible shoes. To outsiders I suspect she may have come across as gruff; one would expect that from someone who had lived a hard and often unkind life. But like many exteriors, hers was deceiving — once you cracked open her shell, you found a kind, patient, and generous soul. It was that soul, I think, that allowed her to make such exquisite things.
Bedspreads of crocheted lace, the delicate ecru yarn she favoured hooked and pulled into a sea of baubles and embellishments of staggering complexity. Ornate Easter eggs, called pysanky, decorated with Eastern European folk patterns created with a labour-intensive wax-resist method applied with a heated stylus. Celebration breads adorned with traditional designs, pastries crimped daintily and prettily, and untold legions of perogies stuffed and pinched with expert speed and precision. I watched her make them all with hands gnarled from life and tangled with arthritis, hands that defied their station.
Her hands had been made for working, and work they had. They ran a farm in Saskatchewan while simultaneously raising two children. (They also deftly made bootleg whiskey out on that prairie, which supplemented the family income, but that’s another story altogether…) They worked in factories. They cleaned the homes of the wealthy. They operated a restaurant that fed the throngs of workers on manufacturing lines in Windsor, Ontario. They were never still.
It meant her hands were not pretty. They were large, and heavy. They had girth. Her fingers were thick, and the lines on her on her palms were well-worn grooves. By the time I was old enough to notice such things, I remember the size of her middle knuckles — swollen and wrinkled and knobbed — and how the arthritis ravaging her distal joints pushed the tips of her fingers downwards. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when I was a child her hands scared me — they had a brutish, savage quality. To my young and naïve eyes, they were ugly. Yet they were so gentle with me as they scooped a treat of ice cream into a cone, offered me one of my favourite homemade jam-filled cookies, taught me the art of pysanky, and, most of all, as they held my own hand in theirs. There was never any mistaking their most important qualities of all: Eva’s hands were capable, and loving.
She used them right up until the end. In her final days, lying in a hospital bed dying, she lifted them into the air. She crocheted with invisible yarn as her family sat with her in that room, waiting for the inevitable. I imagine she also kneaded a loaf or two of bread in her waning mind’s eye, and embellished a few more Easter eggs. Only death itself could deter her from using those timeworn hands to make beautiful things.
I was twenty when she died. I was extraordinarily privileged to have had a great-grandparent, a beloved one, in my life for that long. I think of her often, still — every time I make bread, when my eye catches my own traditionally decorated Eastern European Easter eggs nestled next to hers in the bowl where I keep them on display, as I stuff cabbage rolls at Christmas, when my needles clack as I weave yarn between them.
So while always in mind, she has been at the forefront of late. I think of her every time I see my left hand. There it is, the tip of my fourth finger permanently bent downwards, a lingering blotch of blood pooled beneath the nail. The finger is now crooked in exactly the way I remember her fingers being, and I can’t help but recall how my young self recoiled inwardly at their appearance.
I once rated my hands a perfect “5” in a body-image quiz a Vogue book on “beauty” encouraged me to take when I was in my teens. (It had been a Christmas gift from an extended family member one year and I shudder at its definitions, motives, and implications now.) There weren’t too many parts of my body that got high scores — my thighs got a “0” if memory serves — but I thought highly of my full lips, breasts (probably because in said book I read my bra size was considered “ideal”), and of my hands, which were proportionate to my height with long, slender fingers. I’ve always loved large, ostentatious rings and statement bracelets. I’ve never really thought about why, but it’s likely because I felt I was enhancing this favoured part of my body.
Then 31 May 2018 happened.
I had just gotten in from walking Tilda. I switched her leash from my right hand to my left so that I could unlock the door to my condo. Down the hall, I heard the elevator doors slide open. A split second later, it was all over. I was dumbfounded, not feeling pain but knowing something was terribly wrong with my left hand. I looked over at my neighbours and said, “I think it’s broken.”
Their dog had come bolting out of the elevator, using the hall as a speedway. He’s tiny and unintimidating, so they have a habit of letting him off-leash in common areas. Tilda was not going to let the chance at a good game of chase pass her by. From her seated position beside me, she leapt into action, taking off in bold pursuit. As she did, the rip of her leash from my hand managed to shear the middle phalanx of my left hand’s fourth finger on a diagonal. It happened so fast I don’t have recollection of the moment of break. All I remember is calling Tilda’s name and feeling an eerie numbness where my finger was supposed to be.
I fed Tilda her dinner. I changed out of my dog-walking clothes. I gathered my belongings and took the streetcar to the hospital emergency room. Looking back now I realize I was in shock, but at the time I was glad to have felt calm and resigned, taking action step-by-step.
Six hours, a finger splint, and a referral to a plastic surgeon later, I was sitting in an all-night diner eating a cheeseburger, drinking a chocolate milkshake, and wondering exactly how I found myself there. The emergency doctor had prepared me for what was to come: Pins to hold the bone together, several weeks with the hand immobilized, and then physiotherapy afterwards. All I knew was that in one second my life was one way and in the very second next to it, in the time it took a dog to exit an elevator, things were entirely different.
Though the surgeon opted not to pin the bone, it healed perfectly. It rested for several weeks, held in place inside a cast-splint hybrid between the fingers on either side of it. I came out of immobilization ready to tackle physio, which I did for several weeks until my final follow-up appointment. I noticed the tip of my finger was pointing downwards, but I still had quite a bit of swelling. I assumed that once the swelling was gone, my finger would return to its normal configuration.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just my bone that was injured. The tendon that controls the distal phalange, the fingertip, was also damaged — likely stretched as the leash torqued my finger. The slack now prevents it from holding my fingertip in place. It’s a classic injury called “mallet finger,” common in baseball and basketball players, whose fingers routinely get jammed. The characteristics by which it is diagnosed — the telltale “droop” of the fingertip and bruising at the nail bed were, unfortunately, disguised when I presented to the surgeon four days after the incident. My finger was so entirely swollen that the downward slant of my distal phalange wasn’t apparent, and my whole finger was purple, black, and green let alone the nail bed.
In hindsight, I should have been in an individual finger splint inside the cast. Keeping the tendon perfectly still immediately after the injury was the best chance I had of getting it to contract even marginally. But by the time the soft tissue damage beyond the initial bone break was identified, it was too late. Several physiotherapists all came to the same conclusion: Splinting the finger twelve weeks post-injury would make little, if any, difference. The surgeon said it simply: “We missed it.”
He ended up giving me two choices: (1) Leave the finger as it is: deformed, but with near full functionality, or (2) have the distal joint fused to correct the droop and hyperextension at the price of the fingertip’s mobility.
For the moment let’s ignore the reality that my ring finger is permanently mangled. Because no, that brutally cruel metaphor is not lost on me. Though my left is my non-dominant hand, I thought of all the things I do with it in which a fused joint would interfere: curling my knuckles over the curved arc of an onion half to hold it safely in place while dicing; supporting the work of my thumbs and index fingers while knitting; typing. My god, typing. It’s what I do for a living.
In the end, it wasn’t much of a decision at all. I’ll be leaving the finger as it is.
People are kind and tell me it’s not that noticeable. The stubborn blotch of blood will fade with time. I’m back to doing all the things I normally do, and so far the only side effect is stiffness in that finger in the morning and a sense of it being fatigued if I’ve been using it a lot. But every time I look at it, I see its grotesque angle. I see a joint pointed in a direction it shouldn’t be, and I remember how that anomaly frightened me when I was a child.
I’ve taken it all mostly in stride, because it could’ve been much worse. It could’ve been additional fingers, my wrist, or even my dominant hand. The joint may have to be fused down the road if the tendon ever slips to the side, but all told it’s not, nor will it be, a life-altering injury. Still, there was one night after that final diagnosis when I was reaching for a glass and all I could see was an aberrated digit when my finger should be. It was never going to be straight again. My hands would never look the same. I felt inordinately sad.
I thought of my great-grandmother and wondered if she ever felt that her hands had betrayed her. If their twisting and curling was a force beyond her control that she ever resented or felt saddened by.
Somehow, I doubt it. Something tells me she simply accepted it as she did every other thing life handed her and just soldiered on. Her hands never stopped her from making beautiful things.
It’s often like that, isn’t it? That we grow strongest from the places where we are broken.