Her father’s simple act of placing a pencil between her toes when she was 5 years old set Bessie Woods on the path to independent living.
“I started writing, and I’ve been writing ever since,” she said. “It just came naturally. It wasn’t all that hard.”
Born with short arms, the Gainesville woman hasn’t let the birth defect get in the way of her daily activities, including cooking and even driving.
Woods, 56, uses her arms to some extent, but she uses her feet for more than walking.
With her toes, she turns on light fixtures, opens car doors and even makes miniature chairs and loveseats with clothespin halves.
Still, overcoming the disability hasn’t meant life has been easy, physically or mentally.
“I used to couldn’t deal with it, but I can now,” Woods said.
She explained the cause for her short arms stems from her mother being given a drug while she was in labor.
According to the website for Merck Manuals, a health reference guide, the drug thalidomide, which was taken by some pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s for morning sickness, “caused a variety of limb defects — usually short, poorly functioning appendages developed in place of arms and legs.”
“Children often become very adept at using a malformed limb, and an artificial limb can often be fitted … to make the limb easier to use,” the website states.
Woods proved that point. Going through school as a youngster, “I was writing with my hands and my feet,” she said.
School was otherwise hard socially at times.
“You know how kids are,” the Gainesville native said. “They were picking on me and stuff. I had to do a lot fighting in school.”
Woods graduated from Johnson High School and went to Warm Springs in West Georgia in the mid-1970s for some life-skills training.
“They trained me how to dress myself and bathe myself better,” Woods said.
While there, she noticed the miniature chairs and became interested in learning how to make them.
Over time, she has made quite a few, sometimes giving them to people she knows.
In a demonstration at her house off Hancock Avenue Extension, she finished a chair, squeezing out a bit of glue and gently nudging the clothespin half into place.
Then, with her big toe, she pressed firmly on the clothespin to secure the piece.
Woods said it takes her about two days to complete a chair, including allowing time for it to dry.
Her pastor, the Rev. L.C. Teasley of New Life Baptist Church at 1380 Harrison Square, said he has noticed Woods’ independent streak.
“I went to pick her up and bring her to church one Sunday and I was going to get out and open the (car) door for her,” he said. “She said, ‘No, I’ll get it.’ She took her foot, opened the door, got in the car and closed it back.
“It’s amazing the things she can do.”
Unable to work, Woods receives a disability income. Although she’s not married, Woods has plenty of family. She has one sister, two brothers and a “bunch of nieces and nephews.”
She does the normal chores of life, including washing her clothes at the laundromat.
She doesn’t drive anymore, but when she did, she would scoot the seat as close as possible to the steering wheel and steer with her arms.
Woods doesn’t use any specialized equipment — just normal utensils, such as a long spatula for cooking.
One tricky task is getting something off a shelf.
“I have to stand on a chair and get me a long clothespin and pull it to me,” she said.
She does ponder how her life would have been different if she had regular-length arms.
“I would have worked and I probably would have had a nicer, better life,” Woods said.
But she doesn’t dwell on it.
“I just thank God I’m still here and I can do for myself,” she said.
Teasley has encouraged Woods, as he does other members, to do more than just occupy a pew at church — to get involved as best she can.
“Her choice was to sing in the choir,” he said. “Other than what you (see), she’s a normal person.
“What God takes away, he adds on. If God takes one of your eyes, he gives more strength to the other eye. He took (Woods’) arms, but he gave her useful feet.”