Changing Hands

A daughter reflects on the life that her mother's manual labor made possible.

December 1, 2008

My mother's hands are a map of her suffering and survival.

When I was growing up, my mother - like many other Cambodian refugees in the Bronx - worked an at-home sweatshop job to make ends meet. In addition to working two jobs (my father worked one), she made hair bows for retail stores. This latter task involved heaps upon heaps of French-style barrettes, clear thread and fabric.

My mother approached this work with little apparent emotion. She stared intently at her fingers as she gathered fabric, took some thread and crisscrossed the thread around the fabric and barrette. Squinting, she fixed her gaze on the needle and thread, which she stored in an empty Danish cookie tin. She often held up the finished bows to show me, grasping my small hands in her tired nimble ones, perhaps wishing silently that my hands would be spared the misery hers endured.

Compared to my mother's hands, mine were pristine. My long, thin fingers were taxed only by the demands of schoolwork. I liked to call them piano-playing fingers. We couldn't afford a piano or lessons, though, so when I took up an instrument In the fourth grade, it was the flute.

With much pride I toted it to band rehearsal and back. To my delight, I placed in the first seat of the flute section, earning the opportunity to play a series of solos in concerts.

Over the years, my fingers grew attuned to my instrument. Unlike my mother's bows, the products of my labor - musical performances - were crafted from desire, not driven by the need for a paycheck. I never faced the need to sacrifice my hands in order to subsist. Only now am I aware of this freedom, and I am sad to think that, to this day, I use my hands to write while my mother remains illiterate.

After high school, I was accepted into a prestigious music program and was awarded a literature scholarship at another college. Suddenly, I had to choose between my love for music and a free education.

My hands followed the money: I chose the literature scholarship. My choice somewhat reflected the pattern of my mother's life: that of dutifully accepting and completing assigned tasks.

As I look back now, I think of what my mother and her hands survived: colonialism, two political regimes, refugee camps and various odd jobs. As a child, I once grazed my fingers across her palms and fingertips, which were so calloused that when I pressed them, they retained my imprints.

Once my mother playfully examined my palms to see my fortune: "You will have lots of money in the future. Not like me."

My hands, supple then, are still supple today. They never suffered the abrasion of sharp thread, the burn of a glue gun or the stress of carrying a grown son to safety through a Cambodian jungle.

Instead, I type or handwrite my stories in the comfort of my home as my daughter sleeps peacefully in her room. My only "battle wounds" are burn marks from baking banana bread.

As my mother's hands begin to retire, mine have come into shape, enabling me to partake in a life that my mother could not choose.

Sokunthary Svay is a Khmer American writer from the Bronx. She lives in Queens, NY, with her husband and daughter.