When my mother was dying, I spent many hours staring out into space, rocking back and forth, holding a handmade clay coffee mug with both hands. My pinkies, bent from arthritis, needed the warmth. The rest of me, bent from despair and sadness, poured coffee into that mug and cradled it every time I felt myself unraveling.
I was holding on for dear life, literally — knowing I would soon have to let go of the most cherished person in my world.
My friend Lynn made me that mug: a big pink mug with a large handle that has a little heart-shaped resting place for my thumb. On the thumb rest, she imprinted a tiny dragonfly — the symbol of transformation.
Lynn discovered her talent for making pottery after she retired from a meaningful newspaper career. She and I have been collecting dragonflies since we “transformed” from full-time journalists to freelancers — and from daughters to orphans.
Her mother was dying, too. She made herself a mug. We cradled and rocked and sipped and cradled and rocked and sipped. We focused on the perfectly imperfect rim of clay on our lips, the hot liquid meeting them, the soothing aroma, the comfort of ritual. We breathed. I own 50 or so random coffee mugs — fancy Lenox holiday cups and colorful Fiesta Ware cups and mugs from nearly every bed-and-breakfast inn I have ever visited — but I never thought much about mugs until Lynn made me this one.
A handmade mug feels special, like the energy of the artist’s hand fuses into your own. “There’s a science to mug handles,” Lynn said. This is something I never would have thought of until I got osteoarthritis in my hands about five years ago. The grip in my fingers got weaker — especially irritating when I was trying to peel back the foil lids of my cats’ food, open those plastic containers of fruit from the grocery store or hold a big cup of coffee.
About half of all women experience some level of arthritis-related hand pain by the time they are 85. And our hands are our conduits of connection. They have “tactile intelligence,” says potter Liz Kelly of Raleigh, North Carolina. “A clay mug is much more than something to hold coffee in. Our hands respond to tools made by other hands — and this has been true throughout history.”
Think about it: Clay shards are an archaeologist’s first indicator of civilization. Kelly uses her own hand as the model for her mug grips. She pulls the clay for each handle individually, making sure there’s enough room for four fingers — the most comfortable grip. She thinks about artistry — how pretty the mug looks — and also about form and function, or “how the handle interacts with the containing part of the mug.”
Perhaps nobody has thought about that as much as Allen and Diana Arseneau, former engineers and health care executives who spent two years designing their ZenGrip mug for challenged hands. They started a company, Jamber, that’s “the first business devoted to hand health,” Allen states. They also offer free online classes for strengthening hands. When you consider how much we need our hands — and the fact that seniors drink more coffee than any other group — it’s about time.
A 2020 survey by market and consumer data company Statista reported that 70 percent of Americans 60 and up drink coffee daily, while just under half of people 18 to 24 do. Overall, Americans drink an average of 1.87 cups a day – with people 70 and up drinking the most, an average of 2.18 cups a day. Allen’s grandfather provided the couple’s light bulb moment. “We were visiting him, and we saw how he struggled to pick up a paper cup of water. I said, ‘Pop, how do you pick up a cup of coffee?’”
Pop was a tough guy, a former paratrooper who loved his morning coffee. But now it hurt him so much to pick up a mug, he had stopped drinking it. That night, Allen and Diana got to work. “We started thinking about creating a handle that allows the natural alignment of fingers, so the tendons are not strained.”
What they came up with gave Pop his coffee ritual back: the Jamber mug (a 14-ounce size is $19.95 at jamber.com) has a four-finger grip and an inch-wide handle that balances the cup, taking the weight off the fingers and onto the palm of the hand. I tried it, and it works. The mug, which has been featured on the Today show, is truly ergonomic. “It’s mechanically designed to do less harm to the body,” Allen said.
One of the people who worked on the Jamber design, Karen Jacobs, has arthritis in her right pinkie. She’s an occupational therapist and Boston University professor who drinks her green tea out of a red Jamber mug. It’s part of her morning ritual. “I love the red color, and it makes me happy,” she says. “We all have challenges in our lives. How can we take those challenges and find a way to adapt?”
Now I am so obsessed with good mugs and the happiness they bring me that I bought a special shelf to display my collection. I rotate between Lynn’s mugs and Liz’s mugs. A new favorite is a large Liz Kelly mug with a gold handle and four rows of multicolored, blueberry-sized clay beads popping out on the sides. I hold the handle with the four fingers of my right hand, and I run the creaky fingers of my left hand over those little baubles, pausing at each one, as if they were rosary beads.
I cradle and rock and sip, and I pray — for my mother, for my peace and for all my friends who, like me, are simply trying to hold on and hold it together … one cup of coffee at a time.
Do you have a favorite mug? Let us know in the comments below.