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Lyrics and Life


By Caitlin Ward


Grandma’s Hands
Bill Withers

Grandma’s hands
Clapped in church on Sunday morning
Grandma’s hands
Played a tambourine so well
Grandma’s hands
Used to issue out a warning
She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
Might be snakes there in that grass”
Grandma’s hands

Grandma’s hands
Soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma’s hands
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Grandma’s hands
Used to lift her face and tell her,
She’d say “Baby, Grandma understands
That you really love that man
Put yourself in Jesus hands”
Grandma’s hands

Grandma’s hands
Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy
She’d say, “Matty don’ you whip that boy
What you want to spank him for?
He didn’t drop no apple core”
But I don’t have Grandma anymore

If I get to heaven I’ll look for
Grandma’s hands

As I type, I am distracted by the ring on my middle finger. It’s not the sort of thing I’d normally wear. It’s a dark yellow gold, probably a very high carat I’m told, though the quality mark is in Chinese characters so I can’t tell. It reminds me of a scene from a book I read in my childhood: a dream in which a Chinese dragon lounges on a throne made of gold that is so pure and as a result, so soft that the metal shifts when the dragon does.

This ring is nearly that soft, a flat piece of gold that folds over on itself, easily bent to fit on my middle finger, to fit over the swollen knuckles on my grandma’s ring finger. Up until a week ago, that’s where this ring lived. It looked better on her. My skin is too pale.

I don’t know if the ring was my grandma’s, to start with — it’s got the name of one of her good friends engraved on the inside. I remember that friend, and I remember how you couldn’t say you liked a thing in front of her because she’d give it to you if she owned it, and she’d try to buy it for you if she didn’t. It was an overwhelming kind of generosity that one had to get used to. I imagine at some point, my grandma said that she liked this ring, and suddenly found it on her wedding ring finger.

The ring finger on her other hand, her right hand, hadn’t worked the way it was supposed to in a long time. I wasn’t there for it, but I heard the story. Grandma invited my mom into the house when she came over to visit, and she put the kettle on, I imagine. Grandma kept her hand behind her back for just a little too long, though, and my mom caught her out. Her fingers were wrapped in an old cotton sheet, crispy with dried blood. She’d cut the palm of her hand the day before, hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, either didn’t feel the pain or ignored it because . . . well, I’m guessing after you’ve given birth naturally seven times, anything short of losing a limb is child’s play. But it turned out she’d cut the ligament at the base of her ring finger, and went in for day surgery at the urging of my mother and the insistence of her older sisters, my aunts. This was years ago.

My grandma’s hands were soft at the end, which surprised me when I held them in the hospital. She’d worked so hard all her life, and those hands had been cut to pieces in the garden, doing dishes, waiting tables, supporting her family — it had been a while since she’d had to do any of those things, of course, but I guess I had assumed the calluses would be so deep that no amount of time would soften them.

I think I also assumed she would never die. It wasn’t until I saw her sitting on a hospital bed the Sunday before her death that I even realized it was possible she could. We used to joke that she’d bury us all, but honestly, I’m pretty sure I thought she would. So it was not just sad, but also very strange to bury her this week.

I was given the somewhat difficult honour of writing my grandma’s eulogy. In it, I talked about the hardships she had faced and the incredible good she had done not only in spite of those hardships, but because of them. My grandmother was someone who worked toward the greater good with determination but also such gentleness: quietly getting down to the business of changing the world, so long as no one looked at her. I was happy and proud to say those things to a room full of people; I could praise her in death in a way she never would have let me in life.

But I don’t know if we particularly remember people for their explicit virtues — or their vices, come to that. Our memories, though ephemeral, are more tangible than that. It’s the nights playing rummy, the ivy pattern in her bedroom, the scents of Pine-Sol and Palmolive, the never-ceasing improvements to the back porch, the front room, the kitchen. The way she swore like 91-year-old women rarely do, the way she laughed, the fact that she and I traded shoes and loved leopard print, much to the chagrin of my mother.

It’s the soft hands, the blood-stained old sheet around her fingers — the yellow-gold ring from China on my middle finger. The one that doesn’t look quite as right on my pale skin as it did on her brown hands. On Grandma’s hands.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at