Lesson in a shoebox: Big hands are just right for big jobs.

I've got big hands. But I'm not complaining. Strong hands and sturdy fingers can be useful. They are when you're practicing your scales, for instance. I haven't played the piano for years, but I used to be able to stretch an octave plus two notes. That came in handy for "Für Elise."

I might even have green fingers. I haven't found out yet - gardening is my husband's domain, so far - but it's a nice thought.

My sisters both have thin hands and delicately tapered fingers - the sort you buff and polish and cherish. I love my sisters dearly, but when I look at their hands and then back at my ungainly pair, I sometimes wish I lived in the glove era.

You know, back when all well-brought-up young women donned kid gloves before they left the house. It was a time when mothers called out anxiously: "Have you got your pocket handkerchiefs?" to daughters as they swished across the porch in their hooped skirts and starched petticoats.

Remember scatterbrained Josephine March from the children's classic "Little Women"? Once she spilled lemonade on her only pair of gloves. So Jo and her big sister, Meg, had to pool their gloves when they went to a party: Each wore one of Meg's pristine gloves on one hand and clutched one of Jo's crumpled, stained gloves in the other.

Jo found gloves tiresome. I think they might have been rather fun.

My mother likes gloves, but not for vanity's sake. Mum thinks gloves, like thermal vests and woolly hats, are important because they keep you warm.

These days Mum might not ask me where my hankie is, but she makes sure she slips a new vest into every Christmas parcel she sends me. That happens even though I live in tropical Zimbawbe most of the time now.

One rainy afternoon the last time I went home to England, Mum and I decided to go through an old shoebox of black and white photographs my grandmother had left her.

Mum smiled when she saw pictures of herself as a little girl. Grandma had pinned her hair to the side with a white ribbon.

In those photographs, Mum looked carefree, but apparently there was one thing clouding her happiness. She wanted two names, like her friend next door had.

But Grandma had given her children only first names. What do you do if you're 7 years old and you need to acquire a middle name? Simple. You halve the name you've already got. My mother simply told her neighbor that Pamela was actually Pam Ella, and that way she got her two names.

Mum and I looked through photos that included Uncle Graham in his schoolboy shorts. She also unearthed a picture of Jack the lodger. His rent money helped pay the grocery bill at No. 80 Meadow Lane, where Mum grew up in a rambling old house with an outside privy.

And then I saw her: my great-grandmother, Winnie, who was wearing a black maid's uniform with a white apron. She had shiny dark hair looped over her ears and pinned at the nape of her neck. A no-nonsense hairstyle, I think you'd call it.

Mum tried to remember more about her. Winnie worked for a rich family in County Yorkshire when she was young, Mum thought. Then, deep down in the shoebox, we found a letter.

"October 4th, 1922. Dear Winnie," it read. The letter was written in careful spidery handwriting on thick, yellowing paper.

"I was very pleased to hear from you and was only thinking about you the day before. Ivy is still with me, but I fear she will leave me to be married soon. If she does, I shall write and see what you are doing.... There is only Miss Dorothy and Miss Cicely at home now, and the latter is out all day, so we are a small party. I am yours sincerely, Annie M. Squire."

We tried to piece the clues together. Annie Squire must have been Winnie's former employer. Miss Dorothy and Miss Cicely were Annie's daughters, or maybe her spinster sisters. Ivy was the maid who succeeded my great-grandmother. We knew that Winnie didn't go back to work for Annie because she got married shortly after the letter was written.

I stared at the photograph of my great-grandmother. Winnie couldn't have been more than 17 in that portrait, a shy girl on her first job away from home. There were no creases in her dress, which went all the way down to her ankles. Her hands were carefully folded. They were big hands with solid fingers. Hands that later raised nine children - Jean, Bessie, May, Janet, and all the rest of them, plain sensible names you don't hear much nowadays.

I looked more closely at the photograph and Great-Grandma Winnie's hands, thinking of all that history they'd soon hold. And then I looked back at my hands.

They're something to treasure after all.

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