Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Matter of Hands

My earliest memories of going to 'the city,'  the borough of Manhattan in New York City, was to visit my godparents, 'Aunt' Alice and 'Uncle' DeWitt.  It was 1945, a long time and a different world ago. They were best friends of my mother and pops. I was lucky to have been born a girl, otherwise today I'd be sporting the monniker DeWitt.  I guess it would have been okay, but I much prefer Alice. 
They lived on Park Avenue and 77th Street, near the Lenox Hill Hospital where he was head of surgery, and two blocks east of Central Park.  It was one of the apartment buildings built just after World War I to house the newly wealthy professionals and businessmen. 
When we visited the city we often walked through Central Park amid its lush greenery, winding paths and hidden places—like the lake with rowboats, the Tavern on the Green, statues of Alexander Hamilton, and soldiers of the 107th Infantry from WWI and the 7th Regiment from the Civil War.  The Rambles, and  Sheep Meadow, the old grazing commons, were good places to stroll.  I thought it was funny to walk in Central Park when we lived in the country and never took a walk, but somehow it must have made sense to my parents.  I wanted to ride in the fancy open horse drawn carriages lined up on Central Park South in front of the Plaza Hotel and pretend I was a princess.
My parents took me to the Central Park Zoo when we had the time.  I liked the elephants and tigers, but the monkey house scared me; I didn't like their large staring eyes and the way they peed when they saw visitors coming. 
But my favorite was the tank where the seals swam and played and clapped their flippers together.  Their faces always looked so sweet that I dreamed of taking one home and having it live in our bathtub.  I would let it sleep with me in my bed at night if it wanted.  I was sure I could convince pops to build a little pool in the backyard for it.
Their apartment was as large, if not larger, than our big house in Mamaroneck.  I remember best the living room—almost cavernous with a grand piano in one corner.  I never heard anyone play it.  Maybe someone did once upon a time; Uncle DeWitt had a daughter and a son, but they were grown and out of the house by them.  Perhaps they took lessons as children.  Their mother wasn't Aunt Alice but someone else I never met.  I knew about those things, mom and pops had been married to other people once too.
On the piano was the piece that interested me most, a sculpture of Uncle De Witt's hands, by some famous sculptor of the day.  Just the hands and less than an inch of wrist.  In repose, one hand lightly over the other.  It was done in marble, a light color, lighter than skin but only slightly.  There was a delicacy, a gentleness in the pose, the veins prominent on the top and visible as shadows when the light hit them a certain way.
The adults sat on the other side of the room by a big window overlooking neighboring buildings. They laughed, drank cocktails or tea, chatted about whatever nonsense adults chatted about.  I was to entertain myself, keep quiet and out of the way, and don't get into any mischief! 
A little girl decked out for the city in plaid pleated skirt, white blouse and navy jacket, white socks and black patent leather sally-pumps, I sat on the piano bench and stared at the sculpture.  My blonde hair was just above my shoulders with the top piece twirled and twisted into a bun held tight by hairpins.  The center of the bun was left open, a convenient coliseum home for my pet turtle, George—named after the wrestler—Gorgeous George, who spent much of his time there.  If I had to go someplace, George went with me—seven year olds can be very demanding.  My parents gave in on that point, they knew where to pick their battles.  Also, I think pops was secretly amused when people realized a sleeping terrapin was nestled in the blonde top-knot.  They'd see something green, take a look and recoil.
My mother knew how to keep me quiet and well mannered, several books usually did the trick.  I learned to read at an early age and was content with my nose in a book. But at that apartment, I was fascinated by the hands. I assumed George was too since I occasionally talked to him.
The fingers were long and tapered, but there was a strength that emanated from them.  I could imagine them doing wondrous things, and in fact, what attracted the artist to them was Uncle DeWitt's reputation as a famous surgeon. 
As I sat on the piano bench I mulled over the dual questions of how an artist could make hands look like flesh and bones with such a hard piece of stone (once I had secretly touched it, although I was strictly forbidden to touch anything in anyone's house) and how a person's hands could learn to be so skilled that they could fix people.
At the dinner table after cocktails, Uncle DeWitt sat at the head of the table, my father sat at the other end, Aunt Alice on one side opposite mom and me.  Mom sat between me and Uncle DeWitt.  I always wanted to change my seat but mom said "Aunt Alice made the seating arrangements and a good guest never changes them."  There I was, one place setting down from the hands I was so desperate to study.  I wanted to make sure they were exactly like the sculptors rendition, and from what I could tell, they were, down to the last trailing prominent vein.  There was no way of knowing how skillful they were with a scalpel but I watched with interest as he cut his meat and gracefully changed his utensils from one hand to the other.  That was as far as I ever got in answering my questions.  I still don't know.

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