Nightly temperatures have been dipping into the twenties, but at our house, we’re still enjoying tomatoes, thanks to our friend Jim and the small greenhouse he rigged up in our “pandemic victory garden." Whenever I think we’ve picked our last tomato, we end up with another dozen. We’ve been giving them away; tossing them into salads and stir-fries; making them into varieties of pasta sauce; and bagging them whole for the freezer.
This afternoon I’m back in the kitchen (which is not, I’ll remind you, my natural habitat). My mission? To reduce five more pounds of “love apples” to a basic marinara.
After blanching and peeling the tomatoes, I set them aside to rest. In a stewpot over medium heat, I soften diced onions and minced garlic in olive oil; stir in assorted herbs and spices; add a smidgen of honey to cut the acidity.
At this point, I’d usually puree the blanched tomatoes in a food processor, then combine them with the sautéed ingredients. But this time a little voice says, “Forget the machine. Just squeeze!”
So, that’s what I do: I squeeze and squish and squash every last tomato into the stewpot with my bare hands. Seeds spurt. Red pulp oozes between my fingers. I’m grinning as the big pot fills.
After several hours of simmering, the marinara is done. I sample it with a wooden spoon. This batch of sauce doesn’t taste much different from earlier ones, but it’s by far my favorite. I made it with my hands.
A few days ago, my family would have celebrated my dad’s 84th birthday, had we not lost him in the pandemic. I distinctly remember his hands, our last visit, around a year before he died: an old farmer’s hands, stiff and swollen, pale from poor circulation. Neuropathy had robbed them of feeling; it also produced intense burning pain that no drug seemed to ease. Dad sat in his wheelchair, stroking them, his
fingers like thick sticks. Sometimes he’d moan.
“You want me to put some lotion on your hands?” I said, having seen my mother do this, trying to relieve his suffering.
He wasn’t a man who asked for help. Nor was he eager to say “yes” when help was offered. In his mind, a man should be self-reliant and provide for others, even if he’s confined to a wheelchair.
But I understood the look he gave me.
I applied the lotion as gently as I could, afraid of hurting him more, though I knew his diseased hands were numb. There was nothing magical or medicinal in that liquid. Yet, the intimacy of our touching proved a powerful remedy.
Dad couldn’t feel the lotion on his skin. He couldn’t feel me massaging it into his hard, inflexible hands. But, as I tended him, I could see that he felt the strength of my love. That was enough. For a few blessed minutes, he relaxed.
* * *
Is your house, like mine, full of machines and gadgets? Food processor, mixer, blender, coffee maker, dishwasher, computer, cell phone, chargers, vacuum, floor cleaner, cordless drill and screwdriver … that’s just the start of my very long list. How long is yours?
All these things have purpose; when properly used, they’re beneficial. They make my life easier.
Yet, maybe they make my life too easy. Maybe they alienate me from my wondrously capable hands.
Machines and gadgets have cheapened my hands, humbled them into worshippers of plugs; grippers of handles and wheels; turners of knobs and switches; pressers and punchers of buttons; swipers of screens….
You and I can activate or operate an increasing number of machines without touching them at all. The mere sound of a voice is enough to run them.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I appreciate machines. But at what cost do I use them, day in and day out, my hands falling out of practice? By relying on devices to do so much of my work, how much do I deprive myself of sensory awareness, pleasure, and gratitude? By allowing my hands to become strangers to myself, do I become less inclined to touch others? And does how I touch them change?
“Hands,” I said, “we need to get reacquainted.”
I don’t intend to give up my machines and gadgets. But I do intend to be more mindful of how I use them, and how often. I’ll watch for more opportunities to slow down; to do more activities by hand.
By befriending my hands, I'll better prepare them to touch someone who, like Dad when I last saw him, desperately needs a soothing caress.
“Hands,” I say, “how about we make some pasta for all that sauce?”
Phyllis Cole Dai
This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!