My Grandmother's Hands and Psalm 90
We are in her house in Dallas. Sesame Street plays on the television I am supposed to be watching. But instead, I watch her, specifically her hands. She grips her new, clean easel, finagling its three legs in different positions until it stands independently. She extends her arms, pinching her thumbs and middle fingers on the top corners of a recently gesso-ed and pencil-detailed canvas, lifting and setting it down gently to rest on the easel. Her soft, peachy hands reach into an off-white fabric and brown leather-lined painter's bag resting on a table next to her and pull out 1 larger and 1 smaller plastic paint tube. She sets the smaller one down, carefully unscrews the larger one and gently squeezes about a tablespoon of its bright white contents a bit off-center on , what at the time seems, an oddly shaped, somewhat rounded wood plate. She screws the top back on, puts it down, picks up the smaller tube, unscrews it and applies even more controlled pressure to the tube, causing a smaller teaspoon size deep cobalt-colored mound to ooze out. She screws the top back on and puts it back down. Next, she reaches into the bag for her brushes, lots of them, different shapes and sizes that she gathers up in one hand and places vertically on a table, releasing as if they were pick-up sticks to fall and spread haphazardly on the table's surface. The bristles are clean, but the handles are splattered with layers and layers of her past paintings - blues in pastel shades are most noticeable, but there is a speck of white here, a smear of pink or red there. And when ready, she selects a brush, dips it into the smaller splotch on her palate and pulls the now bristle-blue bulb toward the center where it meets the dollop of bright white. She mixes the two colors together, blending them until they are no longer deep sky and ice, but instead a perfect Caribbean Sea.
We are in a quiet hospital room, and my grandmother is unconscious, peaceful, and dying. She lives for two days like this after I arrive. Neither my mother nor I leave the hospital these oddly endless, urgent, blurry forty-eight hours. We spend the time in a quiet rhythm: me sleeping while my mother keeps watch and then the reverse. Most of my awake time is spent holding and looking at my grandmother's hands.
My grandmother was a creator: a painter, a sculptor, a decorator, a seamstress, a pianist, a cook, and the list goes on. Over the past year and half since she died, countless reminiscences play like old-style home movies with no sound reel in my mind's eye, sometimes because I turn them on myself and sometimes because they seem to have a will of their own. In them, I see my grandmother painting, sculpting, playing piano, cooking, sewing, often looking up to smile, laugh, or say something that I cannot hear. But inevitably, the focus zooms in on her hands: how they moved, what her nails looked like, the length of her fingers, the shape of her knuckles, the pale tone of her skin. And then, as if in time-lapse projection, the film clips capture advance to show memories of more recent times, and I watch her hands change. The once taut skin loosens, revealing deepening wrinkles and more pronounced veins. Her arthritis becomes more and more challenging and as such, her knuckles appear larger. A broken wrist changes the angle at which her hand rests when flat on a table. And then I flash to those final moments, sitting at her bedside, holding her hand, her still soft and smooth and strangely strong and beautiful hand.
I have always been moved by Psalm 90, its honesty, its intentionality, its yearning, its hope. In acknowledging the limits of life and the struggles we all experience, the Psalm asks the Divine to teach us mindfulness, perspective and compassion. The Psalm concludes that we find purpose in life when we can recognize the Holy, the Divine around us. And ultimately, life extends beyond the finite bounds of days and years when our lives and legacies are remembered and lived out in those who live on after us. The Psalmist expresses this idea so beautifully in the last verse: "Establish the work of our hands that it may long endure."[i]
My son loved my grandmother, his great-grandmother. He inherited much of her creativity and talent, demonstrating a real artistic gift very early on in his life. Now, at the age of five and a half, if there is down-time, he spends it creating: sculptures, drawings, and most often paintings.
We are in our home in Deerfield. The water is pouring over the dishes I am supposed to be washing, but instead, I am watching him. He is determined to create something "really special, like Nani used to do" he says. He reaches into his plastic art supply box to set up the palette, acrylic paints, "fancy" brushes, and canvas he received for his birthday. Then, he reaches along-side a book shelf, in the space between the shelf and the wall. It takes a little coaxing to set up since it hasn't been opened in many years, squeaking and creaking as he pulls each leg out so it can stand balanced. The top is still very clean, but the ridge along which the canvas rests is covered in paint. Layers and layers of paint - blues in pastel shades are most noticeable, but there is a speck of white here, a smear of pink or red there. It is like a yet-to-be excavated site of the countless layers of works of art my grandmother painted on canvases that rested on this same easel. My son places his blank canvas on my grandmother's easel, selects a brush, dips it into a deep shade of blue, pulling up a substantial glob. And then what I see and my son does not is that as he lifts his brush to the canvas and begins to paint, a drop of azure from his brush falls to the bottom of the canvas and drips onto the ridge, adding his own layer, his own imprint, onto the foundations of history and story and love that sit beneath.
May Your Work be visible to Your servants, and Your Glory to their children. And let the beauty of the Divine be upon us; establish the work of our hands that it may long endure . Psalm 90:15-16
[i] A modified translation as suggested by the Reform Rabbis manual.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen serves as one of the rabbis at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL, and sees her mission as one to bring the deep wisdom tradition of Judaism to benefit the lives of people of all backgrounds, the community, and by extension the world.
Originally published at Pri HaGeffen