When I think of my mother, Bessie Elizabeth Bacon, I recall her hands leaving an indelible print on my life.
The plainest memory is of her handprints on the thousands of homemade biscuits she baked for us over the years. Many times, I watched her prepare the batter, roll the dough between her hands and gently put it down on the baking pan, which was a round lard-can lid. When she finished filling the pans, she used her fingers to flatten each biscuit. The baked biscuits still had her imprint on them.
I recall the many years before we got an automatic washing machine, when all the clothes a family of 10 had to be washed by hand. Her hands would be so red and raw after doing the wash on a cold winter day. I do not know how she managed to scrub all those heavy overalls and other clothes up and down on the galvanized scrub board with the harsh bleach and other washing detergents that had been added to the water in order to clean them. But she did it in love and out of necessity.
Her fingers held the needle that she quickly moved in and out while patching Daddy’s faded overalls, or using scrap pieces of material to make colorful quilt tops to keep us warm during winter nights.
Her hands got all scratched in the briar patch while picking luscious blackberries for a cobbler or to make jelly or jam. Her fingers could nimbly unzip pea hulls or butter beans as fast as anyone. I know, as she used to pick and shell them by the many washtubs full each summer.
When Mama was a little girl, she used her hands for a tiny bit of mischief when she took yarn and wound it all over the trees and bushes around their home while Aunt Hatty, an old lady who stayed with her while her mama and daddy went fishing, was napping.
With pride, she, at 6 years old, and her cousin took a rope and strung up a dozen dead mud and carp fish that had washed up in the ditches during the freshet of 1925 and drug them home for her mama to cook.
She showed strength in her hands as she swiftly wrung an old rooster’s neck to make a pot of chicken and dumplings. Her hands were full of pain after canning a bushel of hot peppers that badly burned them. Many days, we saw Mama’s hands wrapped around a hoe while she bent over in the tobacco or cotton fields and labored under the hot sun, trying to earn a few extra dollars that were needed so badly. The strength in her hands was noted as she brought a sharp axe down on a block of wood that had to be split into stove wood to cook a meal for us. A chicken hawk trying to catch her chickens feeding in the cornfield did not stand a chance when Mama put her finger on the rifle trigger and pulled.
Swiftness in her hands was necessary, as she often had to climb the old, rickety, wooden ladder and throw bucket after bucket of well water on the burning wooden shingles on the kitchen roof caused by hot sparks from the wood stove. Precision was in her fingers when she carefully tapped a precise amount of Railroad Snuff into the can lid and put it in her mouth.
Tenderness was in her hands when she cuddled a tiny kitten, puppy, biddy, pig or calf that had been neglected by its mother and needed special attention. There was love and gentleness in her hands when she petted her adopted dog, Cocoa, every day over the last two years.
Every winter, our family’s seven remaining children came down with the croup and could not sleep because of coughing every breath. Mama’s hands applied that awful concoction of hot tallow streaked with smut and mixed with turpentine to our chests.
It was her hand that spooned the nasty-tasting cod-liver oil, 666 cold medicine, milk of magnesia or black draught into our mouths when she thought we needed it.
In spite of the many duties involved with caring for her original nine children, our father, her father and herself, she still took time to play with us. I remember one warm sunny day, while we sat in a white sandy part of the road in front of our house, she showed us how to make a fist with our hand and press it down into the sand to make a baby’s footprint. We did this over and over.
Perfectly made beds and dust-free furniture may not be memories from our childhood days, but Mama taking time to play with us will never be forgotten.
Authority also was dictated by her hands — especially the day I was playing with matches in the broom-straw patch with my brother, Tommy, and accidentally set the whole field on fire. I ran as fast as my 5-year-old legs could carry me to get Mama to help put out the fire. She met me in the yard, pulled up my dress and left her fingerprints on my behind!
It was with pain in her eyes and love in her heart that her hands took care of our baby sister Marilyn Kay, who had been born with spina bifida, 24 hours daily for 53 weeks. We enjoyed watching Mama’s hands wrapped tightly around a cane fishing pole, waiting on a fish to take her bait. She could jerk a mullet up so fast just as it bit the worm that it did not stand a fighting chance.
In later years, the telephone receiver filled her hand. She loved to talk on the telephone, for long lengths of time, until her hearing got bad. And the one thing that we all teased her about was watching her hands use a pair of scissors to cut out all the obituaries of people she knew — or thought she knew — from five weekly newspapers. She filed them away in her notebook in alphabetical order.
Yes, Mama’s hands meant much to us as we grew up in the large family and after we were grown with our own families. Back when she was able, she was quick to cook our favorite old-fashioned meal, including homemade biscuits, when we visited her. Then, when the meal was finished, she told us to sit and visit while she did what she really enjoyed — washing dishes with her two hands.
On Friday, May 23, Mama was admitted to Evans Memorial Hospital in Claxton with complications from congestive heart failure. For the next 10 days, as she became weaker, she was never alone. Whenever her hands reached out, her children’s hands were there to hold them.
Around 3 a.m. Sunday, June 1, with all her children around her bedside, her hands became still in ours and all her tasks on Earth had been completed as she faded peacefully into eternity.
(Even though Mama did not live in Liberty County, my sister Hazel Todd; her husband, Roger; their daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Jeff Hein; great-granddaughter Emilee Hein; granddaughter and husband, Paula and Gregg Higgins; and great-grandson Keith Miller live in the county. My family and I lived here for almost 40 years.)