As a little girl, I was fascinated by women’s hands. By women, I don’t mean the smooth perfection of girls a few years my senior, but my mother and the mothers of my playmates, women still in their prime but who were weathered a little by years and work and children. Their hands were roughened and criss-crossed with fine lines, softly freckled, wedding rings scuffed. I would stare at those fingers and to me, they were the most beautiful things in the world. I would wonder what it would feel like to be grown and a mother and to have hands that looked like that.

My grandma died last summer. She was my last living grandparent, and with her passing the roles and dynamic of our family shifted. My parents moved into the position of senior generation and my cousins, siblings and I slid into the space previously occupied by our parents. No longer are we the grandchildren, but we are now the middle link in the chain, with one generation above us and one below. We are not old, but we are no longer young. The position that we previously held is now occupied by the laughter of our own children.

I stare into the mirror. In the somber reflection that stares back, I see a few small lines around the mouth and eyes that I haven’t noticed before. The roundness and smoothness of youth has passed and I look…mature. Then I look down at my hands and they are my grandmother’s and my mother’s; they are the hands of the women who I loved as a child. Fine lines trace the thin skin across the backs. They are softly freckled and my wedding ring is scuffed.

Five times these hands have lifted a wet and squirming newborn, still attached to me by a pulsing life cord, to my chest. They have soaped soft curls and kneaded bread dough and chopped vegetables. They have cradled brown eggs, still warm from the nest. They have milked cows. They have dug in the earth, pushed a thin needle through a quilt and yielded themselves to the rhythmic click of knitting needles. They have rubbed backs and cleaned up after the sick. They have washed thousands of dishes.

These hands map my life.

All around me, I see fear of aging. It is in the eyes of women I pass in the grocery store and it shouts at me from a poster advertising yet another revitalizing facial cream. We are a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, but we fail to realize that the two are not necessarily synonymous. There is beauty in youth, to be sure, but it is also in the worn, the simple, the well-lived. Beauty glows back at me from my Grandma’s last picture, it is in the deep lines around her eyes and the thin lips that have formed a million smiles and yes, the hands that have lived and loved and tended.

Those hands reach out and they grasp my mother’s hands and hers reach and grasp mine. Mine, in turn, hold the tiny fingers of my own daughters…and I am not a lone entity struggling to find my way in the world, I am part of a chain of purpose and love and it is my calling to strengthen that chain and to instill in the little ones below me the vitality of that purpose.

A harsh cry cuts through the early morning darkness and I lift my baby from her bed, hold her close, tuck her in next to me and gently stroke her fuzzy head. She squirms, then stills, lulled into peace by the touch of my aging hands.