I can remember the day I made it.
Well, to be more precise I can vaguely recall silent fragments of the day I made it. I remember my kindergarten classroom, the tiled floor, the tables at the back of the room, the square outlines painted on the floor where we sat at story time. Each of us was assigned our own square; we could not share a square. To one side of the room were two ovens–that classroom had it all, even private bathrooms. I remember the clay. Our teacher and her assistant had made circular plate-like slabs about eight inches in diameter out of clay, and each of us was told to press our small hand into the center of one to give to our parents as a gift.
I pressed my hand into the clay–such a small impression and not very deep. I pressed harder. Old Mrs. Cole place her hands, aged and arthritic, over mine and leaned forward gently pushing her weight into the clay without hurting my wee hands. She helped me make my mark, but no evidence of her hand print was left to be seen–only mine. Mrs. Cole may have seemed as old as a Michelangelo sculpture, but she could hold a pen steady. She etched my name, Sarah, neatly into the clay and beside that she wrote the year, 1986. I was five years old. The clay was then baked in one of the ovens, and after that I chose a red ribbon from a rainbow of ribbons at the front of the room. Mrs. Cole’s assistant, who was only slightly younger, tied it on so that my mom could hang it on the wall.
To say that my mom loved my clay hand print would be an understatement. More clearly the classroom, I can remember how proud my mom was of me. That was the first thing that I ever made and gave to my mom that I knew she honestly liked. Her response was genuine, even to a small child.
Mom did hang it on the wall. It has hung in her bedroom for 19 years now. The clay has darkened to a peach color, its natural white surface having collected dust and dirt for the better part of two decades. The red ribbon eventually deteriorated and was replaced with a light pink ribbon. Longer than the first ribbon, the latter was tied in a fancy bow bringing the craft project back to life.
Late one night, with my mother, I was watching a British comedy, “The Last of the Summer Wine.” As I was about to walk through her door to hunt down a snack in the kitchen, I looked up at my hand print hanging on the wall above the light switch, and I stopped. I saw it nearly everyday, sometimes multiple times during any one day, but I never really looked at it. It was just there. I raised my hand, the hand of a 24 year old, placing it beside the childhood relic. Seeing my hand next to the impression I had made so long ago, it was tough to grasp that they are one hand of the same person.
Taking a moment, I placed my hand over the print and simply stood there, trying to connect that intangible shadow of the child I had been to the person I had become. It felt as though the little girl who had made the print did not exist anymore. That little girl would always be that child in my mind’s eye; she did not grow up. I grew up and beyond her, eventually leaving her behind. She has remained there in my memories. It seems that a stranger left this hand print, a familiar stranger begging me to not forget. I have not forgotten. Most of all, I remember my mom’s pride in a creation that was so small and simple.
I am still a student these days, but have been promoted from making impressions on clay tablets to typing essays on word processors. I still try to conjure that expression of delight and surprise from my mom, but it has grown tougher over the years. My accomplishments and good grades are no longer a relief or surprise. There is nothing you can compare to those early achievements, when parents are still hanging in the balance of uncertainty concerning their child’s ability to do well in school. The well-written papers, compliments from professors and passing grades receive a reaction that is little more than, “That’s good,” in a disinterested, monotonous tone these days. However, the clay hand print still hangs on mom’s bedroom wall, silently declaring that, if nothing else, I have at least left my mark.
(*Follow-up* My mom passed away in 2016…not quite two years ago. So, the clay hand print that I made in kindergarten is now hanging on my living room wall beneath of photo of my mom and I together when I was very young. I am now 37.)