A Love Letter To My Daughter's Left Hand
Being a southpaw makes you harder to kill. —Love, Mom.
I could write this entire essay as an ode to my daughter’s drawings. In our house, reams of paper, canvases, and restaurant napkins are covered in the pencil outlines of cute bunnies, fuzzy animals, and anthropomorphized cupcakes with big, dreamy eyes. She once painted a kitty face on a butternut squash that we had grown in the backyard garden to use as a soup ingredient, but blue Sharpie somehow saved the day (for the squash). Who could cut into a gourd with those eyes? A monster, I tell you.
My girl is a prolific artist with preternatural skills that make a mother’s heart race with fantasies of fame, fortune, and award ceremonies. I envision a future version of my daughter clutching a trophy and, like art imitating life, thanking her mom with the same dreamy eyes that squash once sported.
She’s 8 years old. I know, pull on the reins, mama. But it’s like Pablo Picasso once said, “My hands tell me what I am thinking.” I often watch her left hand move furiously across the paper. Her face bent low, brow furrowed to the tinny scratches of graphite like she is a vessel to the hand, to the act of creating. I marvel and feel myself slipping back in time.
Picture it: I am 8 years old with a pageboy haircut ubiquitous to Asian American youth of the ‘80s (a hypothesis proven every time I get the chance to flip through a friend’s or relative’s photo album and the hairstyle pops up: all bangs and straight lines). I am bent over a piece of paper, writing with brow knitted, but not in a flow of creativity. It’s discomfort. The pencil moves in staccato jerks in my right hand while my left hand is bound with beige masking tape. I try to feel normal in my correction, my re-education to become a right-hander.
Among the sea of red handles, the one insolent green pair for lefties mocked me with its dull inner blades, rusty from disuse.
I was like my daughter once. Left hand freely filling notebooks with drawings and short stories. But back in the days of my childhood, it was hard for a left-hander, especially in my house, where my Chinese immigrant parents clung to the old-world belief that left-handed children were abnormal and needed correcting. “What would happen if you had a meal with someone and your utensils were constantly fighting?” my mom would say while knocking chopsticks together like dueling swords. Enter the masking tape.
I now handwrite and eat with my right hand (no dueling utensils here, ma!). But I do everything else — sports, cooking, grabbing toddlers from falling into pools — with my left hand. I still feel the phantom presence of the tape pinching my fingers. In elementary school, the ghost of the tape hissed about my flaw whenever I needed scissors from the classroom’s wire basket. Among the sea of red handles, the one insolent green pair for lefties mocked me with its dull inner blades, rusty from disuse. My classmates’ scissors glided through paper. Mine gummed and mashed it. After I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I prayed for boobs and complete right-handedness.
To be born left-handed is to be the recipient of a genetic gift wrapped in the DNA’s double helix. Why exactly a person is born left-handed still vexes scientists. There are far fewer southpaws on the planet — about 10% of the human population — so left-handers living in a right-handed world encounter ancient prejudice. To find out if I were the only leftie who felt this way, I joined a Facebook support group — as one does these days — and dove deep into conversations with other lefties who felt the tiny cuts of aggression. It’s what Jenny Kim, a support group member, calls feeling like an “evil omen” in her home growing up neurodivergent and left-handed.
“She felt a lot of shame for having me as a daughter,” says Kim about her mother.
Is being born left-handed a gift indeed, or a curse? Maybe it’s both. In a 1924 letter to the British Medical Journal, Dr. Harold Drinkwater, an English physician who researched hereditary diseases, claimed left-handed children showed “feeble-mindedness.” Maybe, Dr. Drinkwater, it’s because those damn scissors don’t work. But if feeble-mindedness meant self-loathing, I had it. And it hurts worse when I unwittingly transmit the feeling to my girl.
Her world isn’t like mine — no one in her classroom seems to mind that she is a southpaw. But my parents tsk-tsked seeing her left hand at work. I silenced them. One day, she came home from second grade and said she wished she wrote with the same hand as her besties — an observation she noticed herself. Can I change her, she asked, hazel eyes swimming with earnest hope, like my parents changed me?
I felt myself slipping into a liminal space between past and present, where I floated untethered. At my age, I can recognize common threads in life stories; the way they connect. The kid with the pageboy bob of my past and my kid with the curly hair meet each other here.
The continued existence of left-handers, McManus explains, is because we have a biological reason to be here, otherwise evolution would have erased us. Poof.
That night, while my daughter peacefully slept in a cocoon of stuffed animals, I wrote a love letter:
Dear Left Hand,
Did you know you are a superhero? You can draw cute bunnies with sparkly eyes. You can write your name in cursive. You can create some really cool circuits. And you know what? It just so happens that you have all the talent. Sorry, right hand! Sometimes it can feel bad when you are the only one in the room working. It may feel so bad on the inside that you want to shake the right hand awake! But trust me, left hand, you are the real rock star. Never change!
Mom’s Left Hand
At 8 years old, my daughter is starting to understand her own beauty. I want her to celebrate the outline of her own body, but I also want to tell her I understand what it feels like to want to hide. The past, like Lauryn Hill says, seems so far away.
The next day, we sit on the couch, arms intertwined, to listen to a podcast about left-handedness. She’d read the note over her breakfast cereal then carefully folded it in half and placed it on the placemat. It now sits agape as we listen to Chris McManus, a professor and author, speak in his English accent about the science behind handedness. It’s a lah-bore-ah-tory, honey! We parrot at each other, then laugh.
The continued existence of left-handers, McManus explains, is because we have a biological reason to be here, otherwise evolution would have erased us. Poof. To me, being left-handed means we are harder to kill. That’s something to celebrate.
My daughter slips out of my arms and onto the carpeted floor, opens her notebook, flips to a blank page, and pushes her pencil across it. The outline of a carrot emerges. Soon the eyes will follow. The artist is a vehicle for the creative process, and the left hand from which art is delivered from the universe to page is a sublime mystery. Trying to explain this mystery, much less change its course, can destroy it.
So tiny artist, please don’t ever change. Keep putting pencil to paper. Your hand knows the way.