Friday, May 4, 2012

Painted lady

Janet looked down at her red fingernails.  It wasn't her normal color but it was her mother's favorite so she was wearing it for her.  Janet's mother Alice always told the story of how she came to love her red nail polish.

Janet's grandmother had been a very conservative, strict woman, to put it mildly.  She was one of those women we point to as being a strong matriarch in family history but if she were alive today we would report her for child abuse. Alice had come home one day from a girlfriend's house with her nails painted crimson red. She had been so proud of the manicure. She thought the bright color was so fancy and pretty she rushed in to the kitchen to show her mother. Her mother was not pleased.  At all.  She told Alice that only whores painted their fingers like that and no daughter of hers would be parading herself around like a wanton woman! Alice's mother scrubbed her fingers with turpentine until the polish was gone and Alice's hands were raw and bleeding.  Instead of going to school the next day showing off her beautiful red nails Alice hid her hands for weeks while they healed.

When Alice finally left the family farm and moved to the "big city" of Osceola one of the first things she did was buy a bottle of Crimson Fire nail polish and start painting her nails weekly.  Later on in life when Janet's father was making enough money for the family to be comfortable Alice started to indulge in a weekly manicure and a pedicure from the local salon.  Always red. Janet could remember the first time she was allowed to go with her mother to get her nails painted.  She was six and it had been a reward for stopping biting her nails. She chose purple. The lady who was going to paint her nails checked in with Alice to make sure she was okay with the garish color that Janet had chosen. Alice smiled and said, "If it makes her happy to have her nails purple, then paint her nails purple." The only time Alice ever raised an eyebrow of Janet's polish choices was during the stretch in high school where she went with black. And even then all Alice said was, "That must be hard to take off."

The only time Janet saw her mother without her trademark red nails was when the family took a trip back to Iowa to visit her grandmother.  Alice went in for her weekly manicure but had just a layer of clear polish put on.  Janet remembered hearing her mother and father discuss it on the plane. Her father thought that Alice should have kept her nails the way she liked them, Alice said that her mother was an old woman and that it didn't cost her anything to show her respect by not having her nails painted in her house.

That visit back had been terrifying to Janet. Janet had never met her grandmother before, she didn't like Janet's father so didn't want the family to visit with him along. Alice finally put her foot down and told her she had two grandchildren she should meet but she was not going without their father. Janet wasn't supposed to know that her grandmother didn't like her father but she had overheard Alice and a girlfriend of hers talking about it one day. Janet's grandmother blamed her father for taking Alice away from the farm, then away from Iowa and for turning her into something she wasn't raised to be. Janet wasn't sure what that could be since in her 5 year old eyes her mother was everything that was perfect and right in the world.

On the trip there Alice explained to Janet and her older brother that her mother wasn't like their other grandmother. That they shouldn't expect her to greet them with hugs. That she might even seem a little intimidating but to understand that she still loved them, she just didn't show it in the way they were used to. Years later Janet and James discussed that trip and what they remembered.  James remembered how big their grandmother had seemed.  Their mother Alice was a very petite woman. Barely 5'3" tall, very trim and fit even after having two children.  She was always perfectly groomed and put together. Their grandmother seemed a giant in comparison. She was as tall as Janet's father and probably as wide. Janet remembered that she was very scary. She seemed to only speak to Alice and then what she would say wasn't very nice. She was critical of the way Alice was dressed, she said James needed a haircut, she said that Janet didn't have any manners and she would never refer to their father by name.  It was always "that man".   But they both remembered very clearly how the trip ended.

On the last day of their visit Alice asked her mother if she had anything else to say to her before they left that night.  Janet's grandmother sized her up with a very critical look and said, "I guess I failed you. I tried my best to raise you right and I just failed." That was the last straw for Janet's father.  He stood up slowly from the dinner table, "Alice, honey, I've been as quiet as I can be. But I cannot and will not take this anymore." Janet's mother had looked down at her hands and nodded, just a small movement, but it was enough to let Janet's father know he could go on.

"Though we appreciate your hospitality [though the way he said hospitality it was clear what he thought of it] we are leaving right now. I have listened to Alice beg you to visit or allow us to visit for the past 10 years. You would have nothing of it. Alice dared to leave you and you have never forgiven her. But I just want you to know a few things. I didn't take your daughter away from you, you drove her away. She is the strongest, smartest, most beautiful woman I have ever known.  Where she never heard a kind word from you our children hear all of the time how wonderful they are.  Where you tried to limit her choices and make her only what you thought appropriate she supports everyone around her and gives them the strength to become what they can be.  Her friends, her children and yes, her husband all adore her. I have tried over the years to give you the benefit of the doubt. To believe that you had to have some good in you because of how much good there is in Alice. But she is who she is not because of you, but in spite of you."

Then he held out his hand to Alice, she stood up and held out her hand to James who then took Janet's and they all walked out of Janet's grandmother's house. As they reached the door, Janet's father turned around and said one last thing to her grandmother, "And my name is Charles."

They never visited Iowa as a family again.  When Alice's mother died a few years later Alice and Charles went back to the funeral but James and Janet were allowed to stay with their other grandmother for the weekend.

Once Janet and James were adults their mother would share more stories about growing up on the farm in Iowa. They both had wished they had a chance to have met their grandfather. It was clear from the stories that it was from him that Alice got her kind ways.  He had been a small man in stature but had a big heart. He would comfort Alice and her brothers when he felt that Alice's mother had been too strict. He died when Alice was only 9 and she was left to face her mother on her own from that point on. Alice was always very quick to tell James and Janet that their grandmother did the best she could with what she had, she was raised a certain way and that was all she knew. But James and Janet both believed that wasn't true.  After all they had met their grandmother, they had heard the stories about what she was like to Alice growing up and Alice wasn't like that at all. It was all she had known as well, but she did better.

Small in stature, big in heart. She was the best mother in the world according to both James and Janet. She had been the best wife in the world to their father Charles and he told her so every day that they had together.  When he died as people spoke at the funeral almost everyone talked about how much he adored Alice. She had been the best thing that every happened to him and he never let her forget it.  Even her mother-in-law had adored her. She always said Alice was the daughter she had never had but had always wished for, though better than she could have ever dreamed. She was the sort of friend that you knew you could always count on. She was kind to a fault and stronger than anyone could have ever guessed. She had been a better woman than her mother had ever given her credit for. Red nails and all.

Janet looked down at her red fingernails again.  This time her daughter reached over and held her hand. Her nails also painted a bright red, and then the minister began to speak....

"One of the things I will never forget about Alice was her beautiful red fingernails....."


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