Mom had perfect fingernails. In the pic above we’re comparing the paint job to the color of the marble in a Roman palace we visited when she was 72. Her nails were better. Always. No matter what was happening around her. What’s more, she had the hands to go with them – slender, elegant, with no knobbly knuckles or endless cat scratches, no peeling paint, no warts, no torn cuticles, no ink stains from the manual labor of verb conjugation. My hands were as different to hers as Singapore is to St. Louis. Oh, and could she give a back-scratch. Nothing like it to feel loved and relaxed. 

I got a manicure today.

My hands look fine, now at least. A professional has just taken forty minutes to buff and nip and shine these puppies up. I remember Mom doing that every Sunday night before the workweek started, then crossing her fingers and waggling till her nails dried. She and her sister Jeannie were really good at the art of being women – I heard stories about cheerleading, dresses, nails filed into talons, playing hard to get. But that was never all they were, either. They still kicked ass and took names at work. I’ve always found it hard to get more than one of those right at a time.

Mom the builder

There was this time about twenty-five years ago when she and my stepdad were building their house, and I drove down from Vail for the weekend to help. They were really, you know, building it, as my stepdad was a contractor before he retired. They had big plans for my weekend: we were going to hang drywall, spackle and paint in the new kitchen Mom designed. 

When I pulled up, Mom’s feet were dangling a few inches above the top rung of a ten-foot ladder. She was hanging by her boobs on the frame of the new garage, nailing something into something else. My stepdad was directing the action and she was pissed because he was “bossing her around.” She was not, particularly, pissed that she had to leave the relative security of the top rung of a ladder, dangle over the frame of the garage, or secure its frame – just that Bob was telling her how to do it.

She didn’t like anyone telling her what to do, particularly when she already knew. Long before “mansplaining” or “manspreading” hit the lexicon, she’d warned me about know-it-alls, the Napoleon complex, and elbows on airline armrests. She lived in a time when treating women like pretty little stupid things was common, if never okay. You could physically see her bristle when she heard bossiness directed at her, like a shudder but a whole lot angrier.  

When we got done with the day of housebuilding and made sandwiches, Mom looked down and made that “tsk”-ing noise. She had broken a nail. Just a corner, a little snippet, damaged while she was hanging off the eaves or hanging drywall or who knows what else she did that day. Not like when I break a nail opening an envelope or something equally innocuous, and somehow I’ve broken not one but three, halfway down the nail bed, that will take a month to grow out even to the ends of my fingertips.

What confidence looked like to me

How did she do it? Mom was always elegant. I should have asked her for lessons. It didn’t seem like something she could teach, because it seemed effortless, or at least entirely natural. She said being classy was sometimes as easy as being quiet – because people figured you had some secret or were exciting and confident in ways they weren’t. (I wasn’t particularly good at being quietly classy, either…) She “had it”, Mom did, whether she was sitting on our newly constructed bench, or on the floor with her granddaughter… 

Against all odds, I’ve emerged from my late-blooming chrysalis with some of Mom’s characteristics. I hear her in my laugh. I love my siblings fiercely, and crave their contact. I’m not afraid of building stuff, like dining room and coffee tables, customized booth seating and closet inserts. I’m tougher, now, at work and most other places, and more able to demand what’s mine, without apologies, and to bristle when it’s called for.

One more: blowing out birthday candles.

And as long as I have professional help, I’ve got the nail thing covered.