Hands of Time

I remember watching my grandfather’s hands when I was a child. When we played poker or rummy, I watched him shuffle the cards and thought that they would get lost in his hands. My hands were so much smaller, and I struggled to hold on to them when it was my turn to shuffle, but it did not take away from the true sport of the game which was bluffing.

My grandfather arrived from Dundee, Scotland via Ellis Island, and worked on the docks of lower Manhattan. He was tall, muscular, and still young enough to street fight to earn some extra money after the ships went dark for the day.

My grandmother eventually was sent for by my grandfather and arrived in New York City full of hope and excitement. She worked at a brassier factory, and because of her small hands she was assigned to adding the hooks and eyes to the back of the brassieres. Even though they had some wear and tear on them, they still had a softness to them. I thought this was from all the kneading of bread she did as well as her love of baking cakes and cookies her whole life. It wasn’t my grandmother’s hands that caught the attention of the factory manager, but her breasts. She was offered a job as a women’s undergarments model, and she thought this was a wonderful opportunity to earn more money to climb out of the lower east side. My grandfather vetoed the idea and soon after she was pregnant. She gave birth to two boys, my uncle, and my father, and never worked in a factory again.

Another set of hands that caught my attention were my mother’s. She had been sent to a South American convent at the age of seven after her mother died. She never knew her father, and no other family was willing to take her in at the time. The nuns assigned her to the laundry, and she learned to wash clothes by hand using a washing board, wringing the clothes out, and hanging them on a line to dry.

At sixteen she had been released from the convent and into the custody of her eldest sister. Her sister owed a small candy store and my mother worked there until she saved up enough money to come to NYC. She went to beauty school and became a hairdresser and colorist. For years she dipped her hands into the coloring solution, cut hair, wrapped the hair around metal rollers that acted like rose stems that would prick you when you least expected, and then as a final act of a guaranteed perfect bouffant for her clients, she would lift the enormous hairdryers that were always hot and looked like astronaut helmets and made sure they baked in them for thirty minutes.

Eventually I arrived on the scene, and she stopped working at the salon, but used her hands for everything else. She ironed, cooked, dusted, vacuumed, and did several other homemaker duties including washing windows.

In high school I noticed my mother’s hands started to change shape and look smaller. Each of her knuckles took on a different geometric shape, and her fingernails were no longer long and beautiful. Her hands began to cause her pain, and she quickly learned how much you use your hands in NYC. Subways, pushing fifty-pound shopping carts filled with groceries down uneven sidewalks, and opening ridiculously heavy doors that weighed at least three times her size. New York wears you down and the hands are one of the first places it shows. Every night she would smother Nivea crème on them and for a few minutes her hands would feel restored.

I used to love the smell of the crème and would apply it to my hands and hold them up to my nose with hope and dreams of a different future.


Jackie Herbach’s work has been published multiple times in Massage Therapy Journal. She studies writing at Westport Writers, and have taken workshops in flash fiction, creative writing, and memoir. Born and raised in NYC, Jackie is writing a memoir about what it’s like to grow up there in the 1970’s and 1980’s. She graduated with a BFA from Marymount Manhattan College in theater and has had her plays produced in in NYC. She also have a master’s degree in social work. When writing personal essays or flash she enjoys exploring societal issues in our world.