They were freckled and toasted by the sun, like the rest of her, from years of play and horseback riding on the sunny beaches of Southern California. It was a place I knew about from a few occasional visits to see Grandma and Grandpa—but mostly through her hands. Besides, it had already changed so much from the place of her youth, which was part of the reason we went north.

Sitting on our front porch surrounded by cool evergreens and fresh scents of grass and warm blackberries, I traced each line on both sides. I liked to play with the bumpy, pronounced veins that she inherited from Grandpa. Maybe it embarrassed her, or tickled, I don’t know. Now that I am a mom, I can say that perhaps it did. But she probably cherished the time, fighting against the urge to pull away, sitting still as a mouse as I traced to my heart’s content.

The lines of her palm, I traced without knowing what they meant: that her time here with us would be short.

Perhaps her hands gave no real tell, though we lived each day as if it were the last. We always said “I love you” and when we were frustrated, we stayed close—in each other’s space, hugging even—until we understood each other and were at peace again. If the sun went down on our anger, we felt ashamed and stayed up until it was finished. I remember her hands resting, controlled and patient, on my bedspread as I poured out my teenage heart to her, my hurts and confusions about girls and boys and future and purpose. Looking back with my mom heart, I know it was hard to do. Letting your beautiful baby girl cry and yell and express is a terrifying thing to do. Maybe she felt helpless; yet there she stayed, at the foot of my bed. Her hands eventually tucked me in, soothed my forehead and prayed with me that it would be better in the morning.

In fact, staying up late talking is one of my last good memories of her, only I was a freshly independent adult. We were reconnecting after months of being apart. She had suffered long that year—caring for her mom back in California, working with foster youth, bearing the burden of an M.S. diagnosis and medication that wasn’t working. But she didn’t tell me all that. She let me talk—about my students and friends, my church group, my hiking buddies. We held hands as we conversed, and she told me how thankful she felt. She was glad I was finished with school, had a good job. She said she was happy she didn’t have to worry about me anymore.

In the morning, Dad joined us at my apartment and we ate breakfast together. Her hands helped me wash the dishes and wipe down the table, then held tight onto the railing as we went outside to the car. I steadied the tube as she gingerly waded through the water, hands grasping for my father’s as he held her steady and she relaxed onto the river. Oh delight! To be out on the water! Her hands splashed cool drops onto mine as we floated down that lazy river that second day of August, which marked the first and last day of their vacation. She tipped her head back and smiled up at the sun, “I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

The next thing I knew, we were being knocked off our tubes by rapids and she was clinging to some branches sticking up out of the water. I was the one who got closest to the log jam; to her. I asked her if she was alright, and she countered my query with the same question. Always putting me first. As the powerful water swept me away from her, I watched her hands hanging on, but the next thing I knew, she went under. Hours that felt like ages later, in a quiet back room of the hospital, we reverently touched the cold, freckled, and beautiful hands of my mother as we wept out our sorry for what we could not do. He kissed her hands and took the rings from her fingers, then we said goodbye.

In my dreams afterward, her hands were the ones I pulled with all my might as I tried to save her from the water. She looked at me intently and told me it was her time; that I couldn’t change that. I woke up alone and in pain. But she left me with her hands. They are what I see at the wheel of my car when I drive, and what I glance down at when I hold my babies. My heart skips a beat. Somehow, despite the lack of California sun, the freckles seem to increase every year, making my hands appear more and more like hers. The slender fingers I inherited now wear the same simple solitaire, the ring my father passed on when my man asked for my hand.

Ever since that day in August, there has been an outpouring of stories about the treasured letters she wrote and the precious time spent with her, about the hands that rested on the fence as she looked out at the endless ocean, watching my dad surf and basking in the assurance of her Savior. These were the hands that welcomed others to share their stories with her.

How many stories did she hear? How many people did she pray for? How many hugs did she offer? How many times did her hands bring comfort and encouragement, protection and love? I am not idolizing her, I assure you. She was rather selfless; a woman who didn’t start going for pedicures until her late 40s, when she had already lost most of the feeling in her feet. She was as real and human as could be, which made her love that much more sweet. And oh, how she dished it out! I was not the only recipient of her love, but my momma’s heart knows that even if I were the only one, it would have been enough.

I opened her Bible as I sorted through her belongings, and almost lost it when I found the Stephy Prayer Cards. There were seven of them; seven detailed prayers that she dedicated her heart to as she lifted me up daily to the Lord. She left me early, but I think that in her mind’s eye, by faith, she knew about everything that would unfold for me. She never met my husband, but she greets me daily through his eyes and silly ways of teasing. She never held my babies, but it’s almost as if they already know her. In fact, my eldest told stories about having a tea party with her once.

Now, over a decade later, I am beginning to understand what people mean when they say my mother will never really leave me. The same passion and intentionality that she raised me with is now mine to pass on. The gentleness and steady presence of her hands will be the gift I give to my children as they grow. The open hands of thankfulness, for each day lived in peace and truth; hands that tried never to grasp selfishly, but instead gave all she had.

Lord, I beg of you, help me live up to the legacy of my mother’s hands. Only, please give me a little more time to realize it.

Stephanie Ross

Stephanie is a kindergarten teacher turned homeschool mom. She’s finally living the off-grid homesteading dream (that took about a decade to agree on) with her hubby and three girls. For her, writing is a way to get the words out without having to talk; though she really loves to talk. Her favorite person to talk with (mom) has been in heaven for eleven years. She writes about living with grief, parenting, and relationships.