In honor of mothers everywhere, it is my great pleasure to share this essay, “My Mother’s Hands,” written by my amazing student and friend, Heather Burrell. This piece won the Santa Fe Community College Student Writing Awards for Personal Essay.
Heather and I met last year, when another instructor asked me to teach her class one day. Heather and I connected in that class, and slowly I learned her story. Heather began working at 10-years-old, and left school in the 8th grade (age 13) to work full-time waitressing and cleaning houses. She only just recently returned to take classes. She said to me one day, “I don’t speak school.” There is such deep wisdom for us all in those words. I will write more about that wisdom in a future Dewdrops.
I sat in the audience as Heather read this piece, tears streaming down my face, thinking of her life story and where she is now.
My Mother’s Hands
by Heather Burrell
My mother comes into the darkened room and pulls the patchwork quilt up to my chin. I have already tucked myself in, as it’s past midnight and there’s school in the morning. I’ve been waiting for her, wide-eyed and sleepless. Her clothes and hair smell like a cloud of fried codfish, but I breathe right through it and into her neck, which is dewy and sweet with the Chantilly Lace she spritzed on at dawn and which has since paled from her clean sweat. The ghosts of Clorox and other cleaning agents waft into my eyes and burn hot from my mother’s hand as she smoothes the blanket over my back, the fabric crackling as it snags her broken skin. I am seven.
Three years later, she brings me into work with her. And though I didn’t know it at the time, my mother was raising me to be a caregiver.…
“Cherry, like the pie,” is how my mother introduced herself to her customers. A waitress by day and a mother by night, she has made a life out of serving others. “There are people who can make the creation of poetry or leadership of a large university or corporation seem loathsome, and then there are people who can make the job of porter or waitress seem a good and useful thing,” writes Joseph Epstein, in his essay (241).
I saw my mother, a good and useful person, making the job of waiting tables appear respectable and dignified, character-defining, benevolent, and at its most rarefied moments, blessed. I was not taught to ask what defined good work- it was simply modeled for me. I was not raised to ask if work was something I really wished to do, or enjoyed doing, or should enjoy doing. We simply worked because we were working people. There were no silver spoons and the world was not an oyster- but I didn’t know that, and I didn’t mourn it. To me, the world felt as full and fat and rich as butter.
I became a busser -and my mother’s saving grace- the same week she came close to strangling a new co-worker whose work ethics had driven her to the brink of good sense. Her nemesis consistently showed up late, ornery and inebriated, and then disappeared into the freezer. The walk-in freezer served as more than storage for frosty perishables; it was the hideout for underage employees, a quiet place to linger with a joint, a clandestine corner for steamy kisses, and a safe, soundproof cell to cool down with a long scream. My mother’s difficult coworker would never have been able to keep up with her, but he barely tried.
The establishment, Tesuque Village Market, was known for its talented French pastry chef and addictive green-chile turkey burritos. All day, every day, the restaurant was slammed. My mother would rise at 4:30 AM to be at work by half past five, in time to wipe down tables and chairs on the patio. But the early hour was worth securing the patio. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of summer or the dead of winter; the tables on the patio were always the first to fill, and therefore the most sought after by the waitstaff. And so it came to be that weekends, school holidays, and summer breaks commenced with silent drives at twilight, as I willed my tired eyes open to the purr of the engine and the scent of Chantilly Lace telling me we’re on the way to work.
Work came naturally to me, but speed came with practice. It took me thirty minutes to get everything so clean I could see my reflection flicker in the tabletops when I stood in the center of the patio to admire my work. Each table would be set up with neatly filled sugar containers, sparkling glass bottles of ketchup and mustard, and polished silverware rolls. I started each ten-hour sprint like this, over the course of three years. On the rare occasion that the Department of Labor dropped by for an inspection, I was shuffled into the freezer like a stowaway.
I never stopped working, often times holding down three or four jobs. I had no idea that my career as a waitress, a server, and ultimately a caregiver would start when I was ten and continue throughout my life. When I started cleaning houses at fifteen, I began to wear thick rubber gloves to protect my sensitive skin. I was a home-schooled and God-fearing Christian at the time, and if cleanliness was next to godliness, what better avenue could I achieve both than through bleach? I protected my hands as best I could, remembering the beauty of my mother’s hands, soft and silky, pale and glowing pink. Her nails were as strong and lustrous as those having been recently manicured. But that was a long time ago, and years of labor have since aged her tapered fingers and tender palms.
By sixteen, I could bus tables, hostess, serve, cocktail, and cook. I would also moonlight as a housekeeper, a dog-walker, a housesitter, an au pair, a wood-stacker, and a snow-shoveler. I excelled at diplomacy and found myself relied upon to smooth over tensile situations. If a customer grew upset or impatient, I would smile and say, “Good food takes time!” Once, when I was a nanny, the lady of the house told me she believed my heartbeat was the only thing that could calm her children and lull them to sleep.
The years passed, measured by the various caregiving jobs I have worked. Rarely did I question or contemplate my calling. Things are different now, and I find myself wondering who I am and how I got here. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “It may not mean that you will change what you do, but it may mean that you may want to change how you see it or hold it, and perhaps how you do it” (Kabat-Zinn 80).
When I started taking college classes, I felt lost. Even as a child, I had never identified as a student. As a grown woman, I felt like an impostor. My momentum faltered, and my first instinct was to head for the nearest exit. But I called Jon Kabat-Zinn to mind again, and his book “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, and I knew that leaving the campus wouldn’t help me retrieve my sense of direction.
Now I have a clearer understanding of why I panicked. When I’m in the classroom, there is no one for me to take care of, besides myself. That shift in responsibility required me to totally reorient my position in the world. And it was no longer the world as I knew it. I have found that the education I am receiving does not discredit my work experience, nor my mother’s valuable lessons, but I am not surprised to find myself drawn to the Culinary Arts and Early Childhood Development programs, as both lend themselves to my nature and upbringing.
Sometimes, when I am in class, I look down at my hands. Although I had kept them sacredly protected, I see my years of contribution to the workforce. I may not have known it at the time, but in each job I did many good and useful things.
I am my mother’s daughter.
~ ~ ~
Heather the night of the reading. When I exclaimed about how much I loved her tights, she said, “I had to bring in the help!”
I have to send huge congratulations out to my student, Marie-Claude Krawczyk, for her award-winning poem “Memories,” in whose reading I also basked in her life story. Thank you to the English Department of SFCC, whose hard work created this opportunity for students gifts to share – Daniel Kilpatric, Julia Deisler, Marci Eannarino, and Kate McCahill. Thank you!