THE JOYS OF NAIL POLISH

Or, rediscovering your inner twelve-year-old

August 2000

 A month or so ago, my husband and I were going out to dinner and stopped on the way to pick up some tool or another my husband needed from a friend of his. I’d never met his wife and children, and when we walked in there were two twin girls, around 3, who rushed over to make my acquaintance. Their older sister, maybe five or six, was a bit more shy, but she eventually edged into the group.

Now, I was raised in an almost completely female world. I sort of remember men around the edges, my father and grandfather, my uncle who seemed to always be getting into one dramatic escapade after another, and my little brother. But mainly it was my sisters and me, and my mother, and my grandmother, and sometimes some of my mother’s friends, and often the girls from the neighborhood.

But this generation, things are different. My mother’s brothers had boys, one two, the other four. I had two boys. My sisters each had one. There is one girl in the entire crop of children this generation, and in my own house, The Male World Rules.

So coming into this house where the little girls were so sure of their place in the world, sure enough that I’d want to see their bathing suits and new shoes for their vacation that they could not wait to pull them out, hold them up to their little tummies, and then change and model them for me was quite an astonishment. They dazzled me with their sweetness, with their delight in something like bathing suits, and I was ecstatic to be able to admire them. Their mother, laughing and a little embarrassed, attempted to rein them in a little. I, so charmed, insisted it was fine, and I talked with her by the kitchen door as she cooked supper for her crew, the girls swirling around us on one busy errand after another. One leaned on me, putting her head on my thigh and I loved the easy feel of her small hand on the back of my knee.

After a few minutes, one of the twins came to me with a little bit of a frown. “Would you like me to fix that little spot in your hair that isn’t quite right?”

Her mother protested, “Oh, no, honey. She’s fine. Her hair looks great.”

But the older sister, and now the twin joined the conspiracy, their eyes alight with the possibility that this new female might really go for it…

It hit me. They wanted to brush my hair. My knees dissolved under me and I sat on the floor, smiling at the mother. “Sure. I’d love it if you fixed that spot for me.”

They all ran for brushes, and barrettes and pins. The brush was too big for their hands, so it slid over the top of my hair, and sometimes very close to my eyes. But the three of them got to work, their hands fluttering around my head, lighting in gentleness upon my brow, over my cheek. They fussed and rearranged, stood back to see if it was right and it wasn’t, quite. One readjusted the barrette over my ear, “you want to get those bangs out of your eyes,” and one asked her mother if they could use a particular clip and send it with me, a gift.

And with them, I was six, putting toy make up on my sister’s lips and cheeks, (actually, my mother often slept late, and her real lipstick–and my sister–sometimes paid the price). I was eight and my grandmother was manicuring my nails. I was ten, sharing a forbidden collection of Maybelline’s Blooming Colors eye shadow with my circle of best friends. I don’t remember who actually owned the compact, but the ritual was always the same–she brought it to school and put it on, and left it on the high windowsill in the girls room. One by one, we left the classroom, anointed ourselves with soft purple or blue or gray, and returned, ready to start the day. Carefully, before we went home, we wiped any remaining color away. With those little girls, brushing my hair, I was thirteen and babysitting some other girls, just this size, and we were painting our toenails. I was fifteen, and my sister was French braiding my hair for school. I was twenty, painting the nails of a shy two year old whose trust I hoped to win.

There have been no little girls around me to brush my hair or let me paint their nails. I had forgotten what a joy it is, how easy it is for us to take care of each other, sisters and mothers and daughters and friends. And as if to emphasize that point, I traveled away to a conference where there was hardly a male in sight. I stayed up late and talked about girl things, which have changed a little–from boyfriends and pregnancy to careers and personal satisfaction and how to fit ourselves into a world that needs more of our time that we have to give. But we still fussed over hair. We borrowed and traded lipsticks and jewelry and purses. We compared the uplift of bras and discussed the merits of stockings or not. Our rooms smelled of lavender and hairspray and make up. The detritus of our rush through the rooms was bits of glitter and lipstick marked glasses.

A couple of weeks later, I sat in a room with another group of women, talking very seriously about a very serious subject: molestations in youth and how often it happened and how often we were silent. One woman painted her nails as we talked. Another took down her braids, a long, long process. An older one, dressed neatly and in the fashion of another age, folded and refolded her hands. A baby girl, less than two, wandered among us, sitting on one lap, then another, getting fussy until she discovered my interlocked bracelets that I put on her plump little arm. Ebb and flow, sad and triumphant, the stories tumbled out over a long, long afternoon, in a room made by a woman for a woman’s tastes–for the hostess of this gathering lives alone, and on her walls are pictures of women, women in history and women in high fashion poses and pictures of women friends and sisters and daughters. Under those faces, the stories tumbled out, and the healing, and the lancing of boils. And all the while, there is a bracelet in a toddler’s mouth and the smell of nail polish and coffee.

Flash forward a month, and I am with four elderly women and my sister-in-law on an afternoon’s outing. One is my grandmother, 81, wearing her big straw hat to protect her delicate skin from the high altitude sunlight. Another is my mother-in-law, carrying her cane, but wearing all of her make-up, and her two sisters, one trim and quiet, the other more voluptuous and chatty. We cover two races and four decades between us. The younger women are dressed in neat shorts and t-shirts in deference to the summer heat. The older women have all worn “nice” clothes. Slacks or skirts and tucked-in blouses, stockings or anklets on their feet. We stop at a tea shop and eat sandwiches and insist to each other that we must have dessert because we’ll walk it off. The conversation turns to food. To the memory of greens cooked in Southern childhoods in various ways. To the pecan rolls one of the aunts made. To my grandmother’s icebox pie and Velveeta macaroni and cheese. I have learned to make a truly great potato salad from the aunt famous for her pecan rolls, and as the conversation rolls around the food, I hug that secret tightly to me, pleased that I will have one thing–finally–that I can bring to a family gathering that might beat something of my sister’s, She Who Braided My Hair and is, everyone says so, the Greatest Cook In the World.

When I was a teenager, I gave up painting my nails. I grew out my hair and wore it in a style that required neither curling tools or styling products. I eschewed dresses and high heels. I never admitted, ever, that I had once been so in love with my Barbie dolls that I carried them around in a special case my mother made. Artifice was not for me (though here I must now admit that I never could deal with being the dishwater blonde nature gave me, and streaked my hair from the age of fifteen on).

I can wake up wash and wear. In the mountains, I don’t have to put on my makeup or even wash my hair. I don’t mind getting dirty in the garden, and I can sweat with the best of them.

But today, I am sitting at my computer surrounded with all the things my inner twelve year old has insisted the past couple of years that I needed to reclaim. There are piano shawls with velvet and fringe hanging on the walls, and a bright pink silk prayer shawl embroidered with gold. Medieval Barbie swings her feet over the edge of a shelf, and behind her is the cute Indian doll from Pocahontas. My nails, today, are painted dark purple. My toenails are painted. I can use a curling iron and have forty seven different kinds of gel for whatever my mood happens to be, and there are three lipsticks at the bottom of my purse, plus Carmex. I have undergarments for every possible occasion, and slips in four colors and lengths. I have seven pairs of black strappy sandals and am hankering for a pair in gold. On my arm are a Tiffany silver bracelet and a tangle of iridescent black beads strung on elastic.

And they please me.

This weekend, I will invite the one girl in my life to come over and we’ll streak her dishwater blonde hair. She’ll tell me about her friends and how the first week of school went, and we’ll eat something sinful as we wait to wash out the color, and we’ll paint our nails and talk about serious things, like how hard it is to be yourself. Within the frame of being beautiful — or maybe feeling beautiful — of giving ourselves a little jumpstart, we’ll be taking care of each other. We’ll be airing our hearts. We’ll be loving each other and touching each other, and be the better for it the next day.

Go find your sister or your best buddies or, even better, borrow a younger girl from a friend and paint your nails. It’ll be good, I promise.

Till next time,

Barbara

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