My Uncle Abner’s surgical scissors are about six inches long, with handles just big enough for a thumb and two fingers and short blades that taper to a curved point. His last name is etched on one side in cramped cursive. I used to think about him, writing his name there on some ordinary day when he thought he would go on with life as an orthopedic surgeon instead of rolling the car on a Texas highway one June afternoon in 1950. He was with another doctor. Both had survived what my mother called simply “the war.” Abner was a medic in Germany. The other doctor was in the Bataan Death March. What could kill them now, they must have thought.
My mother called her brother’s scissors “the scissors” because they were the only ones we had. She grew up during the Depression and “made do” out of habit, using the side of an iced tea glass to roll biscuit dough and then upending the glass to cut the biscuits out with the rim. She hung skirts on wire hangers with safety pins and didn’t mind using towels my father occasionally took from hotels, back when the hotel name was embossed on the side so it seemed justifiable to call them souvenirs. I saved the dimes my father gave me from his pocket after work and bought her things—a rolling pin, skirt hangers, and later when I got a summer job, plush towels in bright colors from JC Penney.
Like many mothers then, mine sewed. I picture her, on hands and knees, cutting fabric with Abner’s scissors, carefully following the edge of a paper pattern spread on the floor. You couldn’t cut fast with them. Their small size and curved point meant you could only cut straight for about half an inch, so your hand was constantly working the handles. I discovered this when I learned to sew and she let me use them. “They were my brother’s, you know,” she said. I knew better than to suggest getting new ones.
My father didn’t know. “Wouldn’t you rather have good scissors?” he asked one evening when she was cutting out a dress on the living room floor and he was in his big chair reading the newspaper. Alert to the cold war between them, I saw her back tighten.
“These are fine,” she said. He eyed her curiously, as if she were some strange species. Then he went back to the newspaper. That’s how it was between them.
One night, he came home from work wearing the pleased expression of a man bringing flowers, although it was a paper sack he handed her. “I thought you might like these,” he said.
My mother took out a new pair of pinking shears. I crowded up to see. They looked huge. You could fit all of your fingers in the holes on the handle, and the blades consisted of long interlocking rows of zig-zag points. I ran my fingers along one edge, tantalized by their sharpness. The chrome gleamed.
“They’re real nice,” she finally said. Then she laid them on a table and said she had to check on supper.
I don’t remember how long they lay there. I didn’t touch them. I was no traitor, though once I caught my father eyeing them regretfully. Eventually she put them in the back of the sewing drawer, relegated to that liminal zone between discarded and thrown away. Next time he brought home electric scissors with tiny sharp blades that went very fast. She used them once or twice. They, too, ended up in the drawer.
My mother was still sewing with Abner’s scissors a year or so after my father moved out. And then, I don’t know when, she bought new scissors. They were straight and sharp and long enough to cut several inches of fabric with each slice. They made a clean, decisive sound. She kept Abner’s scissors, but only for trimming tight places and snipping thread.
Later, after I had left home and returned on holiday, I found my uncle’s scissors in the bathroom cabinet, along with my old pink sponge curlers and a comb with teeth missing. I studied, again, his name.
Then, I don’t know why, I cut my bangs with them. With the door open. Mother saw.
“Well there are those old scissors,” she said, as if seeing an old friend. “They were my brother’s, you know.”
She said, “You keep them.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/carrotmadman6