Idle Hands

“Idle Hands,” Friend, June 1992, 15

Idle Hands

For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies, … Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise (Hymns, 1985, no. 92).

My grandmother always used to say, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

When I was really little, I didn’t know what that meant. When I got a little older, she explained it to me: If you don’t keep busy, you’re likely to get into some kind of trouble. Mischief she sometimes called it.

Last summer, right after I turned ten, I went to stay with her in Missouri for two weeks. She has a neat old farm, but when Grandpa died eight years ago, she sold almost all the animals and stopped farming the land. Now she rents most of the land to someone else, who grows corn on it. She does have a nice, big garden. She also has some chickens, one milking cow named Elizabeth, two dogs, three cats, and a giraffe. The giraffe is really just a plywood cutout painted to look like a giraffe that stands in the front yard. Mom says it was Grandpa’s idea of a joke, and Grandma hasn’t had the heart to take it down.

My dad says Grandma is the workingest woman in the world, and it’s true. She gets up early, goes to bed late, and never stops in between. The problem is, when I’m there, she expects the same of me—except for the going to bed late part, which is the part I would like best.

I don’t really mind work, and last summer I learned a lot about how to feed chickens, gather eggs, and pull weeds. But every time I’d stop to play, Grandma would say, “Come on, Kimberley, you know that idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And then she’d hand me a rag to clean the windows or a broom to sweep the porch or some gloves to do more weeding. She must have said those words to me at least ten times a day the first week I was there.

You’d think that she’d want to sit out on her big front porch and watch the sun go down. She has a perfect view, and the sunsets in Missouri can be extra beautiful. But when I’d ask her about it, she’d always say, “I haven’t time for that.” Instead, she’d get busy tidying up the place and then maybe do some mending or baking. Sometimes it seemed as though she was just looking for something to do in order to stay busy. I used to wonder if she believed that she would get into mischief if she stopped. Surely Grandma wouldn’t get into mischief.

Then one evening after we’d eaten and washed the dishes, she handed me some white fabric in an embroidery hoop and some bright-colored embroidery thread. I was happy that at least I was going to get to do something that I liked.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, as I settled down to embroidering.

“I have mending,” she said, picking up her sewing basket and heading for her favorite chair.

Suddenly I had an idea. “Grandma, can we go out and do our sewing on the front porch? The sun will be going down soon, and the sky is so beautiful here.”

“Same sky as any place else,” she said, sounding almost crabby. “There’s not enough light out there, anyway.” She headed for her chair.

I almost gave up, but something inside told me not to, at least not yet. “Please, Grandma. We can come in when it gets too dark. And we could move your big lamp so that it shines through the front window, where your porch chair is. Please?”

For a minute I didn’t think she’d give in. Then, with a sad-sounding sigh, she nodded. “All right, but only till it gets too dark to see.”

There was a warm breeze blowing that evening, and the sky looked as if it was getting ready for a really colorful sunset, but Grandma didn’t seem to notice. I liked the way the wind blew my hair against my face and wondered how it felt to Grandma, but she was so busy with her sewing that she probably didn’t even feel the little gray wisps of her own hair tickling her face.

I embroidered for a while, but then the sky started to turn all pink and purple with gold streaks shooting through it, and I set my sewing in my lap and just watched it. At last the sun seemed to perch, like a bright pink ball, right on the edge of the world. When I couldn’t keep my happiness to myself any longer, I said, “Grandma, look!”

She looked up from her mending as if she didn’t really plan to look at all. But then she stopped, and for a second her face seemed frozen in surprise as she stared at the purpling sky.

The whole world seemed frozen just then. I didn’t even breathe. I knew something very important was happening.

At last Grandma whispered, almost to herself, “I’d forgotten it could be so.” Her hands seemed to settle in her lap, and she relaxed back into her chair, never taking her eyes off the sky.

When the ball of sun had finally disappeared, leaving only color, Grandma didn’t say a word about going in, even though it was then too dark to sew. I didn’t want to go in, but since she’d kept her part of the bargain by coming out, I thought I should keep my part.

“Don’t you want to go in now—to finish our work?” I asked.

“The work can wait.” Grandma’s words surprised me. I’d never heard her say such a thing.

“But Grandma, you always say—”

“I know—‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ But here’s another saying, one my mother used to favor: ‘Take time to smell the flowers.’ I’ve forgotten to do that. Or maybe I’ve just made myself forget. Keeping busy all the time is a wonderful way to forget all kinds of things.”

“Forget what?” I asked. Then I noticed tears glistening on her cheeks. “Grandma, what’s the matter?” I hadn’t meant to make her cry.

She smiled. “Kimberley, believe it or not, there was a time when your grandpa and I used to sit out here every night and watch the sun go down. We took long walks in the mornings. We even used to play checkers. Oh, not that we weren’t busy, but we found time. We made time.”

I was starting to get the idea. “But after Grandpa died, …”

She nodded. “I guess I was afraid to face the sunsets alone. So I stopped looking, stopped taking time to think and remember, because I was afraid it would hurt too much.” She paused a moment, then looked at me. “But thanks to you, my little chick, I found out something tonight.”

“What, Grandma?”

“That it doesn’t hurt nearly as much to look at the sunset as it has hurt trying not to see it all these years. I felt closer to your Grandpa just now than I have since the day he died.”

Then she asked me to come sit on her lap, and even though I’m a little big for that now, I still did it. She put her arms around me, and we sat there for the longest time, just watching it get dark.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki