A Tribute to My Mother for Mother's Day
As Mother’s Day approaches, I realized that I could not quite remember what I had vowed never to forget. I had told my children stories of their grandmother, Harriet Vallas Apostolou, my mother. I relayed to them her funny sense of humor, her funky taste in furniture, and her unconventional approach to everything, but I had forgotten the most important part of her. I had forgotten her hands.
Her hands were not elegant. She did not have long tapered fingers. Her nails were not manicured or painted. No, there was none of that for her, but it was her hands that had been the essence of her. So often, they were covered in dirt, for she loved to garden. No garden gloves for her. She liked to break the earth in her hands, to feel the ground, and she loved flowers. It was mostly azaleas and daffodils, but any flowers would do, as long as they were colorful and vivid. So many afternoons, as we children came home from school, we would find her in the flower beds, planting or moving a new row of flowers to add just the right shade to her gardens. She loved to plant and nurture her flowers.
Her hands were also covered in flour, for she loved to bake. Not cook, no, she did not enjoy cooking, with its tedious menu planning and boring lists. There were no store bought crusts for her, only homemade. She always was perfecting her recipes with lots of flour and butter, and so her hands were covered in dusty white powder, which often covered everything else – her face, her apron, and us, as she hugged and kissed us. She loved to bake cakes and to try new desserts, but her favorites were pies. There were many hours at the kitchen table, rolling out the dough for her next great pie. My father loved her apple pies with their crisp, flaky crusts and warm, gooey sweet middles, but for me, it was always her lemon meringue pie with the brittle crusts and tangy, zesty flavor. She would make lemon meringue pies for my birthday instead of traditional birthday cakes, and I loved it. She never bowed to convention, never.
And, her hands were covered in paint. Sometimes it was oils and acrylics, for she was an artist, but more often than not, it was house paint, because she had decided to change the color of her bedroom, or my bedroom, or the kitchen, again. She was always looking for the right, bright color to match her mood. She was never satisfied with some drab old color that had started to fade. No, for her, it was intense light spirited colors that she liked best. Sometimes, out of frustration with traditional color pallets, she would mix her own paint just to come up with the right color to express her frame of mind. I perhaps admired this quality the most in her because it was so very different from me. She was daring and bold. I would never be those things.
It was perhaps the caress of her hands that I loved the most however. I would climb next to her as she talked on the phone, just so that she would stroke my head and caress my cheek. I loved this more than anything. I wanted just to be near her to immerse myself in her warmth. Later, I would climb into the hospital bed with her as she would take my head in her hands and tell me not to worry. She would tell me this was nothing serious, and that she would be home with us again soon. I wanted to believe that. I needed to believe that and I hung on her every word. It had to be true.
In the end, it was her hands I clutched as I begged her not to leave us. I thought if I just held onto her strong, loving hands, she would stay with us forever. It was not to be. With one last squeeze of her hands, she looked at us, and then she was gone. She could fight no more. As I stood in complete disbelief, it was her hands at which I stared as she lay in the coffin. My heart was broken. My mother was gone. Her hands were folded so neatly across her body. They were so still – so unlike her in life. In my young teenage mind, I swore to myself that I would not forget them. I would not forget her loving touch. I could not.
Yet, as the more than twenty-five years have passed since she died, I had forgotten. Time and distance had eroded my memory. My life had marched on, and my mind was filled with so many other thoughts. Then, by chance, I saw her wedding rings the other night. It does not matter where or why I saw them, but there they were. She had worn them every day. She had worn them in the garden while she was planting. She had worn them in the kitchen while she was baking. She had worn them with her smock, when she was painting, every room, every color. She never took them off because she said her rings symbolized her beloved family. She had even worn them to the hospital that last time. She had only begrudgingly given them to my father when she knew that she would wear them no more.
When I saw them, the memories came flooding back. My eyes filled with tears. I tried to breathe. My chest hurt. I had forgotten. I will not forget again. I will tell your granddaughters of their amazing grandmother, my mother, and her wonderful, loving hands. I will tell them.
Happy Mother’s Day. I still miss you.
Constance Anastopoulo is currently running for Attorney General of South Carolina, making her the first woman to ever do so. She is also an Associate Professor of Law at the Charleston School of Law. She lives in Charleston with her husband and daughters.