My grandfather had this habit of twiddling his thumbs. He would just sit for hours– he was seventy when I was born– and watch soccer or soap operas, and twiddle his thumbs. Sometimes, when it was his turn to babysit me and I was stuck on his sofa watching soccer or soap operas with him, he would fall asleep and his dentures would float in and out of his mouth rhythmically. It was so bizarre! The teeth of this formidable man would emerge with a breath and get sucked back in suddenly with a snore. My cousin and I would crack up so hard– because our grandfather was the strict one, the French one, the strong one who could pull us with just a forearm, even though he was so ancient– but here his dentures were doing something so undignified without his even knowing.
One time I asked my grandmother why he twiddled his thumbs as he did, and she said that in Turkey (he was ethnically French, but born and raised in the port city of Aden, Turkey) they had worry beads. And because he was in America now, he didn’t have worry beads, so he twiddled his thumbs instead. She explained how it was a source of comfort to him, a comfortable habit. So many of his stories were tinged with Otherness that I accepted this without questioning or wondering– just as I accepted why they lived in separate houses. When you are little, you don’t ask, “But why?”
And so tonight, as I put my daughter to bed, and she placed her warm, damp little palm on my foot– her hand reached out from beneath the covers as I sang her a lullaby about fairy puppies (don’t ask) and told her a story about all the fairies of Pixie Hollow (her comfort world). She asked me, after the story was over, to stay, and so I did. I pulled the closest Pillow Pet near her own pillow and stretched out next to her, letting her blanket shield my own body from the blast of air conditioning right near her bed. I took off my eyeglasses and shoes, and her little hand jutted out, grasping for my own, and we found each other. We stayed there for a while, my hand hidden with hers under the covers as she tried to relax the day’s worries away.
Her thumb worried my knuckle, my wedding ring, and then left my ring for all the knuckles, one by one, then back again. And it was funny– how when she worried my ring, I thought about how impermanent Life is. But when she worried my knuckles, it was much more primal.
Like worry beads.
The worry beads never left him, and I suspect the mommy knuckles will never leave her, either. Because some things are permanent. Even if she is without me at some point in her life, she will find her thumbs to twiddle in place of my knuckles.
It is such a humbling thought.