Grief is a sacred journey

My Lover’s Hands

Vic's Italian hands, 1991

Vic’s Italian hands, 1991

We stood with three other couples, anchoring our side of the square. They were much older, at least in their forties. The sun-baked men strutted in shiny cowboy boots and red bandanas. The women twirled layered white petticoats under sequined skirts and flashed lipstick smiles. Everyone was straight out of the Grand Ole Opry. Except Vic and me.

We were Cornell students. I was class of 1967 and Vic was a graduate student. His red beard announced that he was from another world. My long straight hair hung to my breasts and my short dress showed plenty of leg.


Vic and our kittens, 1968

Our six dance partners looked us over. Who crashed our party? Can they dance?

I’d square danced in elementary school in Mexico, Missouri. Vic went to Catholic school and didn’t have a clue, but he saw a flyer at the Co-op Grocery in Ithaca and was drawn to the Enfield Valley Grange. The dance was open to the public. Vic loved a silly adventure.  You know by now that I would follow him to the moon.

“Do-si-do your partner,” the caller yelled into the microphone. Fiddles and banjos played scratchy tunes behind him. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and cheap cologne.

Vic watched carefully, sure he could figure this out. He wasn’t embarrassed. I was.

Others in the circle took pity on us or maybe they didn’t want us to ruin their dance. They directed us with pointing fingers and nodding heads. They smiled when we screwed up and grabbed our hands to pull us back into step.

Public Wikimedia imageWe danced our way around the squared circle, men in one direction, women the other. I grabbed each rough hand and let it swing me to the next. I clasped calloused hands, hands with torn nails, hands with scabs and scratches, scrubbed but stained hands. Farmer’s hands.

Then Vic’s hand reached out for me, large, warm, and soft. Small-knuckled, unscarred with neatly clipped nails. Did the other women wonder how such a hand could make a living?

Vic with David, 1972

Vic with David, 1972

“You had the softest hands in the room,” I teased as we drove back to Ithaca in his VW.

“I didn’t have soft hands when I worked in a tree nursery as a kid,” Vic said.

“They’re soft now,” I said, longing to feel them on my naked skin.

Vic’s hands slipped a wedding ring on my finger in 1968. They held a steering wheel while we drove across country, fixed a flat, and set up the tent. They held my hips when we made love on a thin mattress on the rocky ground.

They cradled wobbly heads and tossed little boys in the air. They held books and tapped computer keys. They carried luggage, chopped vegetables, and washed dishes. They ran a chainsaw and loaded chunks of oak in the woodstove.

Held on the Wall St. bull

Held on the Wall Street bull

They held me close and didn’t let go.

I touched his hands for the last time the day after his death.  His body lay on a white blanket in his cremation box. He was surrounded by photos and covered with red silk. I slipped my warm fingers into his stiff right hand and shaped his fingers around a small clay pot filled with coffee beans. I knew he wanted to stay awake in his after death journey.

The symbolic offering made my son and me smile. Vic would have loved the comic relief. Then I opened his cold left hand and slid in a big bar of bitter-sweet chocolate with almonds.

May your underworld journey be a sweet one, I prayed. May I never forget your soft touch and kind heart. May I always feel held in loving hands.


Vic, 2007

Hands still moving, 2007

What memories come to you when you think of loving hands? Your partner, your child, a parent, or grandparent? I wept as I wrote this article. Vic’s absence has been palpable since I returned from California, so I needed to remember those hands. For a companion article, see A Woman’s Hands. For other articles about relationship, see Languages of Love.

  1. Lovely, touching and bittersweet writing pulls me in. I think hands are the second best part of a person, after the eyes. Thank you for this post.

    • Thank you, Monica. Hands express every feeling connected to the heart chakra (as I know you know). I’ve always been able to trust the hands of people close to me. I’m a lucky woman, eh?
      Thanks, too, for our conversation about Marion Woodman. I love sharing that part of my life with you.

  2. Loving Hands was the theme for my aunt and my mother’s combined 90th birthday party – well earned.

    Cliff’s hands have held chalk for over 4800 art/music performances. He wants to be holding 3 pieces of chalk in his coffin, he says: red, yellow, and blue. Well, I don’t know about that.

    Lovely post. I’m inspired to write one now about chalk man!

    • Come on, Marian! Give chalk man his three colors of chalk! Of course, it’s none of my business, but I’m on Cliff’s side on this one.
      Yes to those loving hands from mothers, grandmothers, dads, granddads, lovers, children, friends, and sometimes strangers (like the kind man who picked me up off the pavement when I tripped in California).
      I look forward to reading what you write about chalk man.

  3. My comment was tongue in cheek, of course!

    You have a gold mine of photos, Elaine. And I know you have more in a vault somewhere. Fabulous!

  4. The hand of my 3 yr old grandaughter when we take a walk together
    The chubby little hands of my 1 yr old as he squeezes my neck when he gives big hugs

    • Beautiful images, Patt. I don’t have any of those little ones in my world, so I make do with paws. Sending you love. I think you’re visiting MA soon, perhaps right now.

  5. Elaine, this post comes directly from your heart; its purity reaches directly across the screen and touches the reader.

    Just reading the title of this essay gave me a lovely memory — of an exhibit I saw years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. Here are some of the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands done by her lover Alfred Stieglitz and other great photographers.

    To love someone is to love all of them but to choose for yourself what you can savor. Whatever those things were are the the things we will miss most.

    I hope you go buy yourself a special pair of gloves for this winter. And imagine your own hands being caressed by Vic every time you pull them one.

    • It does, Shirley. I go long stretches of missing Vic quietly, but returning from a joyful trip threw me into the cauldron of intense grief. It took a few days to realize what was happening and face my sadness. Then positive feelings could rise, along with the memory of the square dance so many years ago.

      Thanks for the Georgia OKeeffe images. I once borrowed a library book of Steiglitz photos of her. Magnificent. As are the other photos here. I love the one taken by Ansel Adams of Georgia and Orville Cox. Her mischievous and slightly flirtatious look reminds me so much of Marion Woodman. An older woman who doesn’t doubt her appeal. Thanks for always broadening the discussion with new angles and reflections.

  6. Hands are a tell-tale of so much about a person, as are the eyes. Another beautiful depiction here of your wonderful relationship with Vic. <3

  7. Elaine, you write so well, and I felt so touched by what you wrote, even though I’ve never known you or Vic personally. Personal rituals to mark the passage of death are such an important process of letting go. The coffee and chocolate symbols were great. If you know Vic would have loved the idea, your gesture was also a gift to yourself.

    • Hi Ann Marie. I’ve studied ritual for many years and there are often food offerings with the burial. So why not send them off surrounded by symbols of love? It was just the sort of odd ball thing Vic loved. We’d created small family rituals with dog burials and always added a few bones. Yes, it soothed me to collect things for his cremation box that morning and then place them with his body. My son got into it with me, making comments about each item and talking to his dad. It made Vic’s death more real and ordinary. Sweetly intimate and continuous with life.

  8. I was reminded of my daughter’s red-painted toenails. I’d massaged her feet throughout our cancer journey. The frayed friendship bracelet around one ankle and the callused heels – when she died, they would let nothing go with her to the crematorium. You were so lucky to leave “gifts” with Vic and keep his sweet body for that short while. I guess feeling cold stiff hands helps one to understand that a loved one has really “passed.”

    • Thanks for the images of Marika’s feet. We did lots of massaging, didn’t we? I didn’t mind feeling the reality of Vic’s death in that way. It felt like a natural part of the experience. A funeral home in Ithaca transported Vic’s body to Ithaca and kept it until cremation. The funeral director was the one who suggested I might want to put things in the cremation box. Give me an inch, and I’ll take a mile.
      Do write a story for The Grief Toolbox, Robin. It can be something you’re already created. Don’t think too much. Just do it. I had just one article there and it had many readers and comments. It’s a good place.

  9. Thank you Elaine – I can only imagine the pain of no longer having Vic’s loving hands to touch and feel and see – my thoughts are with you in those intense moments. I love this eulogy to Vic’s hands – the wedding ring he slipped on your finger inter alia. I love hands – they say so much in their way. They come up in my dreams from time to time.

    • I could have included dream hands, Susan. There were plenty of those in the first years after his death. These particular memories came up as a response to a prompt in a writing class. I needed them. This often happens when I wander too long in a moody underworld place. First strong memories come and tears and finally a story. I’ve painted my own hands a few times. Always interesting.
      The days are getting longer in your world. So much shorter here.

  10. A beautiful reflection, Elaine. Thank you.

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