The Work of Her Hands

Jan 8, 2021 10:02:00 AM / by Dr. Yolanda Pierce

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Excerpt from In My Grandmother’s House, chapter 3

My grandmother’s hands feel leathery. They are never soft or smooth. No amount of lotion can unharden the skin after years spent cleaning, scrubbing, cooking. Hands immersed in dirty water, clean water, harsh chemicals—hands that, combined with elbow grease, shined floors and windows and baseboards in white women’s kitchens. Hands of an older, Southern Black woman... hands that quietly built a nation but whose history is often unrecorded. I have no memory of manicured hands holding mine. Instead, when I remember her hands, I can still feel the calluses of someone who only knew labor her whole life.

It is only now that I am much older that I can piece together the work of her hands. Strong young hands cutting tobacco in Southern fields; brown hands cradling the one long-desired child she dared to love after so many losses; tentative hands signing legal documents she did not understand for a new life up North; gentle hands walking her abandoned granddaughter to school. My grandmother’s hands are a love story, but they are not smooth, not soft, not easy. No real love story is. Her hands are a love story of survival in hard places, during hard times.

These hands parted small sections of hair, oiled a dry scalp, and made neat piles of shiny braids. These same hands, which had scrubbed toilets and diapered other women’s babies, would take the smallest of barrettes or beads or balls and place them securely at the end of tiny plaits, in alternating patterns and colors, securing them at the ends with tiny rubber bands. The creativity of brown hands, denied an artist’s palette, found joy in arranging the colorful beads of her granddaughter’s hair. These hands, which had never touched a potter’s wheel or blank canvas, created beauty from braids. Rough, callused, heavy hands loved my tender young scalp. These hands, so large to my child’s eyes, threaded an impossibly tiny needle, and from fabric scraps they made dolls and quilts and magic. I would later have no trouble believing in the creatio ex nihilo—the idea that God created the cosmos out of nothing—because all my life I had watched my grandmother prepare a feast from an empty refrigerator and bare cabinets. She taught me that to be a Black woman in this world is to learn how to make something from nothing.

Sometimes I look at my professionally manicured hands and feel a sting of hot shame. Shame at not being able to fully comprehend the generational sacrifices made on my behalf. Shame for ever having been embarrassed to wear Easter dresses sewn by those hands when my friends wore fancier ones purchased at Macy’s. Shame for once rejecting the food those hands cooked in favor of something at the local fast-food place. And shame when I wonder whether my hands will ever produce something that leaves so enduring a legacy.

BB_InMyGrandmothersHouse_SmallGraphicThere could well have been a sign above the door of my childhood home reading, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Idleness was as offensive as disobedience or lying; all were sins for which you would be swiftly punished. But idleness in children seemed to be a particular offense that the adults in my life could scarcely tolerate. The idea that a child would have nothing to do, would not be productive in some way, was unthinkable. This led to a childhood of cooking, cleaning, sweeping, dusting, and running errands. No one was going to sit in my grandmother’s house and be lazy. She woke me up early on Saturday mornings, the one day of the week I could have conceivably slept a bit later, with a list of things that needed to be done. Saturday merely existed to prepare us for the hours we would spend in church on Sunday.

I spent hours—days and weeks and years—in my grandmother’s kitchen, helping her cook. Cooking was a full-contact sport. It first required a spotless kitchen, and a kitchen was not spotless if there was so much as one dirty spoon in the sink. After what seemed like hours just preparing the space, you had to be willing to get your hands dirty if you wanted to cook. There were no recipes in my grandmother’s kitchen, no notecards with lists of ingredients. Each dish we prepared had a little bit of this, a dash of that, with a little more of this over here. I learned to roll dough for peach cobbler and make perfect circles for buttermilk biscuits. I had to experiment until the crust for sweet-potato pie was acceptable to discerning adult palates. I worked at seasonings until I could produce a batch of collard greens worthy of approval. I learned to cook by cooking, rolling up my sleeves, getting my hands dirty, making mistakes, starting over, cleaning up, tasting along the way, and doing it again week after week.

A child learning to cook quickly learns the kitchen can be a dangerous place for young hands. Chopping and grating, hot oil and hot ovens, constant cleaning and scrubbing left my hands raw. One day, as a teenager with far too much attitude, I dared to suggest that a food processor could do almost all the things we did by hand—tasks that were incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming. My grandmother looked curiously at me and my suggestion for a moment, and then she went right back to singing and chopping without so much as a response. I knew better than to ask again.

Cooking was her ministry, and I witnessed as she ministered to the lonely and the sick and the lost with a Bible in one hand and a freshly baked pound cake in the other. She fed everyone who came within a fifty-foot radius of our door, always greeting people with both food and scripture. She told me that Jesus consistently did three things: healed people, told stories, and fed people. And that is all she, as a follower of Jesus, had to do in order to live a life pleasing to God. The food from my grandmother’s kitchen healed people, not because of the ingredients but because the person who prepared that food was never afraid to sit with the sick and dying. She was never too busy or too tired to feed welcome guests and strangers.

Years later, in that same kitchen while performing the same set of chores, my grandmother, unprompted, responded to my suggestion as if no time had passed: “You don’t need a food processor. You’ve got to know how to cook a meal for an entire family with your bare hands and one good knife.” I have no idea what prompted a return to the idea I had brought up years ago and had long forgotten. I learned that the pearls of wisdom from my grandmother emerged at the strangest times and places. She did not elaborate on her pronouncement, and we simply continued our well-practiced kitchen routine.

Her words, however, stirred a prophetic question: When there is no outside help, can you still perform the task to which you have been assigned? When you have a few scraps—food, fabric, money, strength—can your hands make them into something more?

Despite my current kitchen being filled with gadgets, I still enjoy the process of getting my hands messy, kneading dough or grating cheese, and knowing the work of my own hands is sufficient to produce a simple meal or an elaborate feast.

BB_InMyGrandmothersHouse_SmallGraphicWe sang all the verses of every hymn at church. And while it may have been the chorus that was given two, three, even four rounds of congregational singing, the words of the verses still somehow managed to seep deep into our spirits. And just like everyone had a favorite passage of scripture, everyone had a favorite verse from an old hymn. Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was the hymn that echoed in my childhood home. With little skill but much enthusiasm, my grandmother would play the piano while she sang her favorite verse about the Lord taking her hand and leading her home.

“Precious Lord” is a hymn that leaves an impression on you. It is slow, melodic, haunting, and elegiac. It is a song of funerals and sorrow and grief. And because I heard this particular verse so much, I had to wrestle with the sublime beauty of the phrase “lest I fall.” That was the terror that haunted any good Holy Ghost–filled Christian: to fall away from faith, to fall out of love with God.

As I grew older, my faith matured, shifted, and changed, becoming something that would be barely recognizable to the tradition into which I was born. That shift left me to wonder at times whether I had fallen away from my childhood faith—whether I had fallen out of love with my grandmother’s God. The doctrine and dogma I had been taught did not make any sense to me anymore. The legalistic practices I had been raised to obey seemed completely contradictory and hypocritical. I feared the exact thing the saints had warned me about when they sent me off to college had come to fruition: I had gotten some “learning” and forgotten the “burning” of a holy and righteous God.

It wasn’t that I stopped believing. I believed, always, in Something, Someone, some loving hands that had set my very existence into motion. I believed even in those moments in which God’s presence was so distant and so dim that the hymns of my childhood could barely penetrate my heart. But the childhood faith had to fall away so that an adult faith could be born.

I let go of a wrathful God, a God lurking around every corner and waiting to punish me for any infraction, and began to embrace a loving God who looked beyond my faults and saw my needs. I let go of deeply embedded homophobia and xenophobia and patriarchy, biases that had been unconsciously transmitted to me all my life, and began to embrace a generous, affirming, and liberatory faith. I let go of the denials of all pleasure, the castigation of the body, the rebuke of the frivolous and silly, and began to embrace the joys of simple pleasures and healthy satisfactions. I let go of the arrogant confidence that had been instilled in me—that what I had been taught was the only right, true, and holy way, and that there was no other path—and began to embrace the most important theological posture that any believer can have: God is beyond my comprehension, and waiting on God is simply the best I can do.

While waiting on my Precious Lord, I discovered my own grown woman’s hands. Hands that were stronger than I imagined they could be; hands that were more capable than I imagined they could be; hands that both clenched into fists and relaxed into prayers. I discovered that the anger and the doubt and the unbelief that I had pushed as far down as they could go, like I had always been taught to do, were actually necessary for a mature faith to live. The hands I offered to God in prayer were those of an adult, making a choice on her own to find comfort in the companionship of a loving Friend.

BB_InMyGrandmothersHouse_SmallGraphicI am a New Yorker, and we walk fast even when we have nowhere to go. So when I come up behind the young couple walking slowly and holding hands, taking up the entire sidewalk, I am frustrated. I am angrily walking behind them. The sidewalk is narrow, and I cannot pass them unless I walk into the busy street. I just want to get home, and I have no patience for their love, for their whispered words, for their entwined hands forming an obstacle between me and the clear path ahead. Exasperated by their pace, I am forced to slow my stride. In my impatience, I resolve to simply walk behind them until we can get to the curb, where I will overtake them at the light and give them a mean stare. They must be tourists, I think, the worst kind of tourists for this busy city sidewalk—young, clueless about their surroundings, and deeply in love.

I prepare my face to reflect my exasperation, and at the corner I turn to look at them and get ready to sigh audibly. I need them to see my face and hear how they have inconvenienced a whole city with their hand-holding human barrier. But what I see, when I truly look at them, startles me and convicts me. They are young, impossibly young, and so deeply in love that they cannot even register my face giving them my “fed up with slow-moving tourists” look. They are alone in this crowded city, cocooned in a place that my impatience and my ill temper cannot touch. He lifts her hand to his lips and kisses her fingers. I turn away, ashamed of my mean thoughts and embarrassed at witnessing such a deeply personal moment.

The set of tightly knit hands—that barricade against my efficient walking—is actually a protective hedge around this young love, a love that will be assailed on every side by forces small and great. Newly planted love needs encouragement and not angry glares of exasperation. I fix my face to offer them a smile and continue ahead of them. It occurs to me as I walk away that I am now rooting for them. I am now hoping that in fifty years, there will still be gentle kisses of hands lined with spots and wrinkles. I am praying that in twenty years, others will be able to witness their mature love, the love that stands the test of time. And though they are strangers to me, I want their loving cocoon to survive. I want them to succeed where so many of us have failed. I want for them an enduring love that weathers the storms and the sorrows that will surely head their way.

I needed this reminder: that most of the lessons I have learned about God’s love have not come from inside the walls of the church. There were no Bible studies or Sunday-school lessons on how to fall in love or what to do when love breaks your heart. The tenderness between this young couple—their public displays of affection and their unapologetic love for each other—is a needed reminder that I am also worthy of gentle, compassionate, and unconditional love. They are a reminder that God intends for us to be in relationship with one another, that God has, in fact, created us for one another. They are a reminder that my midnight hour, or any season of loneliness, only lasts for a while and that joy does come in the morning.

There are seasons of loneliness for which the only remedy is to take your cares and concerns to the Lord in prayer. My grandmother called it the midnight hour, a season in which nothing can help but time spent with hands clasped in prayer and knees bent in supplication. A midnight hour can be any time of day, but it is a moment in which all your doubts, fears, and anxieties converge, leaving you feeling lost and alone. A midnight hour is when you regret the path you have taken or the job you have chosen. A midnight hour is when, despite having hundreds of names in your mobile contact list, you have no one who can understand the depth of your pain. A midnight hour is when God is silent or deaf or indifferent to your cries and pleas. A midnight hour is when you feel the weight of deep soul loneliness, whether there are people around or not.

We are reluctant to talk about the midnight hours in our lives. Perhaps it’s the vulnerability of actually admitting our pain or our fear or our regret that stops us. We are invested in all the façades we have created, those in which we are happy, joyful, productive, never lonely, never scared, never vulnerable. We want to convince ourselves and others that we have it all together. But every once in a while, a midnight hour comes along that reveals our pretense—our failure to admit that there are still nights we cry ourselves to sleep; that there are still confrontations we are too scared to have; that there are still intimidating bullies on the adult playground; that there is still hurt and shame from wounds inflicted long ago. During my own season of loneliness, my own midnight hour, I found myself walking in lament on a busy city sidewalk.

The young couple, walking with intertwined hands, was my reminder that love, in all its wondrous forms, is a gift. And that the loving hands of a grandmother braiding hair, the burn-scarred hands of someone baking pies, and the tender hands of one’s beloved are all God’s beautiful work.

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Dr. Yolanda Pierce

Written by Dr. Yolanda Pierce

Yolanda Pierce is professor and dean of Howard University School of Divinity. She is a scholar of African American religious history, womanist theology, race, and religion, as well as a public theologian, activist, and commentator. An alumna of Princeton University and Cornell University, Pierce served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Pierce's writing has appeared in Time, Sojourners, and The Christian Century, and she is the author of the book Hell Without Fires. Pierce lives in Washington, D.C.

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