No hands? No problem.
That should have been my aunt's motto. I was at least 7 years old before I realized she had a handicap.
I remember Mom telling me, "If you want to spend the night at Aunt Nettie's, you have to be able to button your own buttons on the back of your dress."
Aunt Nettie's hands were balled into little fists and her arms always hung useless at her side. She "walked" funny, too; Dad told me it was because her legs were "asleep" all the time. None of this stopped Aunt Nettie from functioning at home alone all day until my uncle came home from work. She lived, loved, laughed and proved that she could find a way to do anything anyone else did. I learned a joy of life from her that I still draw on today.
Nothing was easy for Nettie. She loved a good laugh over girl talk, but just to be able to light up a cigarette and gossip on the phone like her friends took an enormous amount of effort and planning.
My uncle left a huge glass ashtray on the Formica counter before he left every day. Next to that he left an open box of unfiltered Lucky Strikes. All of this was near the telephone, which was mounted on the wall.
She could sit on a hard wooden chair nestled against the wall between the sink and counter so it couldn't slip and cause her to fall.
It took about 10 minutes to get settled. First Aunt Nettie would shuffle over to the electric stove. Remember, her legs had no feeling. She lifted one foot, stomped it on the floor slightly ahead of herself and then slid the other foot over. Lift, step, stomp, slide; lift, step, stomp, slide. She had a nice rhythm to it. Then she would "hook" her balled fingers over the horizontal knob on the stove and walk until the knob went vertical and her hand slid off. As the electric burner heated up, she shuffled over to the cigarette box, lifted a cigarette out with her tongue and shuffled back to the stove. She would put cigarette to burner, inhale and sigh, shuffle back to bend over the ashtray and place the cigarette on the edge, still burning. Shuffle back to the stove, reverse hook and turn the stove off. Now shuffle back to the counter and take a drag on the Lucky.
At last she was ready to call a friend or a sister-in-law. She would grasp the telephone receiver in her mouth, lift it off the hook and set it on the countertop. Then she picked up a pencil with her tongue and dialed the phone number with the pencil clutched between her teeth. Finally, she dropped the pencil, and swayed back and forth so her arms would land in her lap as she sat down. All the time she was swaying she was yelling "Hold on dear, give me a minute to sit down here."
The beauty of all this is that none of us thought it was odd. Aunt Nettie lived her life as God gave it to her. She never complained; she adapted.
I guess a lot of people adapt, but Aunt Nettie did more than that. She relished every day from the minute she woke up. She also relished being around other people.
As a child, I loved hearing her laugh. Sometimes, when we were alone, she would say, "Sit in front of me, dear, so I can see you while we talk."
During these times, I realize now, she lived life outside of her house through others. She delighted in watching people's expressions, and was astute in sensing a lie. Today, I find it rewarding to listen to other people, and learn from each of them myself. Unfortunately, sometimes, I argue my point. Aunt Nettie never argued. She was interested in what everyone else thought and in what was going on in the world around her. She wanted to be aware and involved, mentally if not physically.
I once asked her why she became so interested in football and hockey. She said it kept her involved in conversations when visitors came over. That's partly why everyone loved Aunt Nettie – she was interesting to be around. Nobody considered her an invalid. They considered her a witty, wonderful person.
As I grew up, I began to realize that nobody really knew – or at least talked about – what was wrong with Aunt Nettie. Naturally I was curious; I remember when Sputnik was launched, and we were watching the light travel across the sky.
"Now that we're in the Space Age," I said, "maybe they can find a cure for you."
"Dear, dear, dear," Nettie replied, rocking back and forth as she laughed. "They can't even find a cure for the common cold."
I never did learn the medical cause of her disabilities. I know that she was "normal" when she married Uncle Ray; and beautiful to the eye. Her biggest strength was that she never resented what happened to her. She continued to love everyone she met unconditionally. (She did not, however, condone bad behavior or rudeness.)
I got a phone call from her one day. I was raising a family of my own by then, and Aunt Nettie was in her 70s. She told me Uncle Ray had been taking her into Canada for acupuncture treatments.
"Is it helping?" I asked. "Maybe," she replied, "but now I feel pain, so we're not going back."
She wasn't angry, but I was. I hated that she might be in pain; and I wanted desperately for this wonderful woman to be able to hug me before she died. That never happened. She died peacefully in her bed, asleep next to Uncle Ray.
No hug? Silly me, she "hugged" me every day in every possible way for decades.
No hands? No problem.