hand gestures(body talk #10)

Wikipedia says that while the clitoris has “8,000 sensory nerve endings – more than any other part of the human body,” fingertips have approximately 2,500 nerve endings for every 2 square centimeters and that they “contain some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body, are the richest source of tactile feedback, and have the greatest positioning capability of the body.” You probably have ten fingertips so, in terms of overall sensitivity, perhaps the hands have it.

I’m one of those people who has to touch. In clothing stores, I wander around like a blind woman with my hands outstretched so I can feel the fabrics. In grocery stores, I’m fondling fruit. If one of my kids hurts herself, I have to put my hands on her for comfort; really, I don’t know if the comfort is for me or her, but I feel relief as soon as I hold her in my hands. My hands are how I express my feelings and if I like you, I’ll probably touch you. I can’t help myself. I don’t mean that I’ll hug or grope or grab you by the arm so you can’t escape but that at some point while we’re talking, I’ll have to reach out and put at least one polite, friendly finger on some innocuous part, your arm or your hand, for just a moment, so light and fast you might not even notice. I think the touch is meant to convey something my words can’t. Just one tip of one finger, even if your arm is covered in cloth and all we feel is a brief warm pressure, a tiny bit of physical evidence that says yes, we are connected. If we’re new friends, I worry what you’ll think, and when I taught high school, I’d worry every day about touching students, especially the ones who seemed to need it the most. I learned to always keep my hands in my pockets when I walked from desk to desk.

Once, when John and I were dating, we broke up. The plan had been that we’d apply to east coast grad schools together but I had dropped the ball. I don’t know why I didn’t apply; maybe I didn’t want to leave my houseboat or quit my crappy but fun job running the personals section of a small weekly newspaper. Maybe I wasn’t sure he really wanted me to come or maybe I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go with him. I was a girl who smoked clove cigarettes, wore Doc Martins, and lived on a houseboat on an illegal dock in Sausalito, California where you had to walk past the “condemned” posters and under the police tape, down a tangle of waterlogged, rickety boards, and alongside homemade shacks floating on mildewed blocks of styrofoam to get to my houseboat: a cement block topped by a 40 ft. boat with canvas tarps for a roof. Sewer lines and electricity and phone service were sketchy and I had a propane tank strapped outside my window to fuel my stove and hot water. The sump-pump was always on, sucking out the water that leaked in, and the leather soles of my shoes would grow green fur if I didn’t wear them, but I loved that houseboat. My bed was in the captain’s cabin, surrounded by three large windows, and in the morning I’d open my eyes to water sparkling in the sun, sparks dancing across my bed and walls, the sound of seagulls creeching and seals barking, the gentle rocking of the water. I had a battered but sturdy canoe tied outside my bedroom window and whenever I wanted, I’d slide out to explore the bay. East coast ivy league with a very nice boy who wore glasses and button-ups and was going to get his MBA just seemed so unlikely and remote. So when he was accepted to a school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, we had to say goodbye.

We lay on my bed on my houseboat. He wiped a tear from his eye, took my hands in his, and told me how much he would miss my hands, the way they felt in his, how they fit so perfectly. He kissed my hands and told me how nice they were, how gentle and good and strong, and that’s when I knew I had to hold onto him.

The expressiveness of hands is underrated. In Italy, I liked to sit at a café where I could hide behind my sunglasses and watch the Italian men talk to each other with their hands. I don’t speak Italian but I felt like I understood every word those men said. Some people use their hands like sharp instruments or bludgeons or puppets or tango dancers or exclamation points. Some imagine the thing they are talking about in the air in front of them, as if they might sculpt it out of thin air and show it to you. Some people’s hands get so excited their gestures speak louder than words. Watching deaf people talk to one another is an amazing performance — all the inflection and emotion and personality can be seen there in the hands.

I have a habit of writing things in the air with my index finger. It’s sort of like air guitar, only geekier. During conversations, I find myself tracing certain words over and over. I didn’t know I was doing it until one day during an argument, John looked down at my wiggling finger and asked what the hell I was doing. I had to admit that I was writing the word “angry” because that was the word we were talking about. Perhaps writing the word in the air diminishes its power, or maybe it puts the power of the emotion under my control. Instead of reacting to a word, I write it in the air, and this diffuses my reaction.

But my hands are no pristine instruments. I rub in the butter, pull meat off bones, dig in the dirt, scrub toilets, feed scraps to the crows, pet the cat, deal with the compost, shop at thrift stores, wash my own car, blow my kids’ noses, and clean out the refrigerator. My hands also caress, squeeze, and hold. In The Hand, part one of his trilogy “Handkind,” Raymond Tallis writes, “This hand — this professor of grasping, seizing, pulling, plucking, picking, pinching, pressing, patting, poking, prodding, fumbling, squeezing, crushing, throttling, punching, rubbing, scratching, groping, stroking, caressing, fingering, drumming, shaping, lifting, flicking, catching, throwing and much else besides — is the master tool of human life.” Without hands, I wouldn’t know how to feel, literally or figuratively.

My mother was born in an internment camp in China. I leave out the word “almost” because it mitigates the impact of that sentence although in truth, she was about 5 months old in 1942 when the Japanese took Shanghai and gathered up all the unsympathetic foreigners (Dutch, British, Americans, Australians, missionaries, nuns, and others: teachers and political, medical, and business people, many of whom had been living there for decades), including my grandparents, my aunt, and my mother, and moved them to a big building. Adults were put to work but my mother was left tied to a crib all day long. She has no memory of this but once, during a session of body work many years later, she remembered lying on her back and looking up at a high gray window, a memory that filled her with desperate yearning.

After a year in the camp they were traded for Japanese prisoners of war. I have many questions about what happened, but my grandmother never wanted to talk about it. When I brought it up, she’d always graciously, elegantly deflect the topic. Mostly I wonder about things no one had answers for, about the lasting psychological repercussions of an event like this. But it wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized I have no memories of my mother touching me as a child. When I hold my daughters in my arms, I feel like something wakes up inside me and fills like a balloon. When I touch my mother, she always reacts with surprise. When I hug her, I feel her body get rigid in my arms and then relax into the moment.

They say that babies who are not touched, die. I wonder if my mother came close to dying, or if something in her died. And when I think of her tied to the crib, all alone, I want to pick her up and squeeze the life back into her.

In case you missed it, click here to see the poem I wrote about the ineffable sensation of holding hands.
This is the 10th part of a series called body talk. To read more, click here.

What do you think? Do you have any stories to share with me?

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. Everything you write is sensual! Mike

  2. I have always been fascinated by hands. Ever since I was a kid lying on the grass staring into a clear blue sky and holding my hands against the sun to see how pink they were between my fingers. I have a friend who is 40 but has the hands of a woman about 30 years older. She has always had old wrinkly hands and now people find them intriguing. I asked to hold them once, just to turn them around and see almost a life yet still to be lived in those hands. She has long aquiline fingers that seem to accentuate the wrinkles. They are almost a part of somebody else. They should be a part of somebody else. My friend’s name is Prune. Honest.

  3. My god Anna, the image of your mother, a baby all alone, tied to the crib. I used to rock cancer babies at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. We knew someone who knew someone and I was so very lucky to get that job. Every Tues and Thurs I’d call my mother on my way to my shift and she’d say, “Doesn’t this depress you? How can you do it?” I could do it because the mothers (and more family) were there and it felt good to give them a break, and of course it also felt good to cuddle those beautiful babies. I say all this, because in all my time there, there’s one infant I remember most. He had no one. His crib wasn’t filled and/or surrounded by colorful blankets and stuffed animals and things that go jingle-jingle. His room was absolutely sparse and empty. Where were his parents, his family? I have no idea. But he’s the baby I remember the most, the one who was the hardest to leave.

  4. macdougalstreetbaby

    Air writing might just be the most ingenious thing I’ve heard in a long while. I do it when I’m thinking of the correct spelling but have never tried it to diffuse emotion. Brilliant!

    The story of your mother in her crib is heart wrenching. Ask as many questions as you can, no matter how much they evade you. I have so many questions that I’ll never know the answers to because my people are all gone. Ask now, before you can’t.

  5. Love this. Shared on Facebook.

  6. elma

    I love your poem on your hands. We can be touched or touch someone we know (hand, arm, shoulder) without realizing that we do that or without our knowledge. These two person can be connected independently of their will on another level. They may remain unaware of this connection but deeply something is happened. The body speak and we use it to communicate but his language is hard to understand.

  7. Anna, I envey your life on the boat, with the canoe at your side to escape when you wished to. Your ancestry is amazing and I can not begin to comprehend it or its lasting effects. I am so glad that you realized what a good man you had at your side. Overall your story kept me entranced even though you discussed so many aspects of your life. Thank you for your daring to share it. Lastly you asked if we had a story to share. I, like most others who commented, am hesitant to tell my stories. On the other hand I am building a book that (I propose) tells more about me than I have been willing to tell in the last 74 years. Thank you for your courage and the great image of your life on the boat. I think that would be a best seller. Love, the sea, solitude, contrast in living style, contrast of two lovers’ goals – – – what a story. Thank you so much for your great writing!

  8. these are one of your post that i catch myself holding my breath as i read.

    i want to read more about your mother-you-your-daughter, that lineage, and the body memories that are inherited.

  9. That houseboat sounds like heaven to me. I feel sad for your mother though. Early scars are often the deepest aren’t they

  10. Your houseboat sounds amazing! And the guy? What happened there?
    Your descriptions of the Italian men talking reminded me of my time in Italy…so true how they talk with their hands.
    I love how people always measure their hands against other peoples..whose fingers are the longest? I miss out on a lot of hand contact because I always have clammy palms…people don’t react well to clammy palms. It’s sad to keep your hands to yourself so much.

    • Why do we measure hands, I wonder? Maybe it’s just an excuse to touch. It is a rather flirty thing, now that you mention it.
      I married that guy 16 years ago and we still fit quite nicely.

      • Aah a happy ending..even if you did have to give up the boat! Compromises eh.
        I think measuring hands is an excuse to touch..we should probably do it more often. It’s likely that it would lead to more measuring of mouths and other body parts…

  11. Oh my, I’m so moved by that description of your mother and the hug. You get me every time with these posts… I sit here and my mind goes in a million directions and memories and I am lost for words. Thank you.

    • Writing about one’s mother is always heavy. My mother is probably reading this. For the record, I must say she’s one of the biggest toughies I know, by which I mean she’s a big softie in a tough shell. Thanks, Alarna!

  12. what a great post. but how did you leave the houseboat and keep John?

  13. So beautiful, all the imagery and the feeling of your mother so brittle in your arms, and then that lovely moment when you feel her relax.

    These body talk posts need to become something. A book, a bound collection of essays, some collaboration with your mom’s artwork. . . .

    • She reads this blog and I keep hoping what I wrote is okay. I think I remember that your mom reads your blog, too. Delicate situation, when suddenly one starts to write autobiography.

  14. Shivers and goosebumps. I often think about what the previous generations have experienced, how that is woven into us. But hands, yes. Yes.
    I agree with Avril, a book of your body talk essays. This needs to happen – I could read these over and over…

  15. My hands are knobby arthritic hands – chicken feet hands. Wrinkled. They are work hands.Clean when I’m not working so it’s better if you see coloredstainedcuticles, broken nails. My right hand tingles, I don’t want to admit that it goes numb. I can’t put an earring on easily. I draw. That’s what I do. I wonder what is going to happen to my hands.

  16. Wow, this post took me everywhere. To raucous giggles as I imagined your wavering finger partitioning you and an angry spouse and then to a stab of horror when you spoke of your grandmother’s and mother’s fate in China. Is your mother British, by chance? My mom was 1/2 Brit, 1/2 German. We had to LEARN how to hug each other. It never came naturally.

    • My mom’s American, although she spent most of her childhood in China and Japan, as did her mother. I wonder about the generational and geographic differences. Maybe this no-touching thing is Asian and European? In South America, I think the children get touched more. But maybe I’m just guessing– I don’t know this for sure.

  17. It amazes me to learn about your history, and of course I am envious that you “have had a life”. Mine could be written in one paragraph: My parents were farmers (though my mom worked in a bank also), children of farmers themselves. I grew up, went to college for 4 years, graduated with a pointless degree, went to work for (so far) the rest of my life.
    Fingers are amazing, aren’t they? Some winters, I get little cuts on several fingertips, or little splits I suppose you’d call them, especially at the edges of my nails. I’m always amazed at the phenomenal degree of pain that these tiny little cuts can give a person. I mean, it’s not cancer pain, heart pain, or tooth pain, so it’s just an annoyance, but the amount of, stinging, discomfort is so out of hand with the size of the cuts. Of course they can feel so well also, can’t they?

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