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March 24, 2005
Today is Maundy Thursday. The "maundy" is the ritual washing of the feet, a part of many of the liturgies that will be observed this evening. Some people don't like the maundy: uncomfortable with the humility of the washer, the vulnerablility of such public grooming. This morning's eMo is a selection from my 2003 book Some Things You Just Have To Live With: Musings on Middle Age , available on the Farm's website or form Morehouse Publishing,


“Manicurepedicure?” the young Korean woman asks, as if it were all one word. I nod, and Rosie goes off to get our boxes . We regulars all have personalized boxes at the nail place, each marked with our names and birthdates, so all I have to do is go to the shelf of March boxes to find mine. In each box is our own emery board, our own emery foot sponge and our own orangewood stick.

Rosie and I meet back at the display of nail polishes, the little glass pots glowing like rows of jewels on the shelves. They are grouped by color, from the bright reds through the dark wines, the purply pinks all together, fading toward the pale pinks and beiges. The odd golds, acid greens and cobalt blues stand out like…well, like sore thumbs, a term not used lightly in this setting. Rosie always matches her fingers to her toes. I tend not to, preferring to show the world a modest light shade and keep my wicked toes to myself.

Sometimes Rosie goes French, which costs a little more. Art imitates nature in a French manicure: the tip of the nail is painted white, and the bed is painted the color of an ordinary nail. Then why bother, Q wants to know, if what you end up with is a nail that looks like you didn’t put anything on it? If you have to ask, I tell him, just never mind.

You should come with us sometime and have your feet done, I tell him. You’d like it. Lately, he’s been complaining that his toenails are changing shape. Oh, yes, I say knowledgeably, and reel off a couple of other things that happen to nails as people age, like getting thicker or developing ridges or sometimes suddenly changing the direction of their growth, so that they point straight up toward the sky, instead of forward. Truth. It happened to my mother.

But Q doesn’t want to go to the nail place, not even when I tell him he could have his feet in a warm whirlpool and sit in a vibrating chair that would massage his spine, not even when I mention that a pretty Korean woman would give him a shoulder and neck massage. No. I didn’t really think he would. I know he thinks the whole nail thing is an extravagance.

This morning I chose “Intimate” for my fingers and “Italian Love Affair” -- because who’s going to know? -- for my toes. Rosie got “Mystic Pink” on both. My nails are growing, Mamo, she says, showing me one hand, and so they are. She bit them a lot a few weeks ago, but that seems to be over now.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I painted your toenails when you were a baby?’ I ask her.

Rosie opens her eyes wide. “No-o,” she says, on a rising tell-me-more note.

“Yup. You were about a month old. Maybe two months.”

“Wasn’t that a little dangerous?” she asks dubiously.

“Nah. Nails never hurt anybody.” I was watching Rosie that afternoon, and decided to surprise her mother and paint the ten tiny nails bright pink. Mommy was surprised, all right.

Most of the colors have names like “Intimate” and “Mystic Pink.” Names like “Chantilly” and “Pink Lemonade” and “Mad About Mauve” and “Ballet Slippers.” Names like “Wine With Everything” and “Cabernet.” There was one a few years back, so dark a purple that it was really black, called “Vamp.” In general, the colors of nail polish are intended to suggest either girlish delicacy or dangerous sexiness, which is why I was pleasantly surprised to come across one last winter called “Fed Up.” Fed Up! I’ll take that one, I said.

In my imagination, the names of nail colors are supplied by manicurists, the women who actually do the nails. New shades are constantly coming out, and each one needs a tempting name. So the girls come up with frill after frill. “Lace and Pearls.” “Sold Out Show.” “Sandy Beach Peach.” On and on with the sweet stuff, except for the manicurist who will forever have my heart, the one who suggested “Fed Up.”

“What should I call this one, Maxine?”

“I don’t give a damn what you call it. My neck’s killing me.”

“No, come on, this is the last one. What shall I call it?”

“Then name it after me. Call it “Fed Up.”

“Fed Up” is an innocent-looking, almost-nude pink. It looks like it could have easily have been given a sweetie-pie name like all the others, but I guess somebody had one too many sugarplums that day. “Fed Up” it was. I wore it throughout the late fall my last year in my last parish, at a time when my physical health was failing and my mental health wasn’t far behind. I would sit at my desk tasting my own despair, and then I would catch sight of my nails. Fed Up. And I would feel a little better. At least someone knew....

The nail place is open seven days a week. It’s a friendly place, pretty in its way, maybe a little heavy on the hot pink, but bright and cheerful. They play soft rock music on a radio all day. They offer greetings in a soft singsong to everyone who comes in, sounding happy to see each of us. The staff is all Korean. Some of them are educated women, but lack the requisite level of English proficiency to work in their professions here. English proficiency and, perhaps, INS working papers. I don’t ask. I remember a Russian manicurist in another shop who had been a biochemist back home. ...

The lady who made the manicurist cry thought her nails had been cut too short. I don’t know where she was while they were being done, because she didn’t say anything until the manicure was finished and then she lit into the young woman like Grant through Richmond. Everyone else in the shop sat very still, shocked, pretending not to hear the woman rant. Don’t let that girl touch your nails, she snarled at me – I was next in line for a manicure. Bitch, I thought, although I didn’t say anything. I could feel my own heart pounding in sympathetic anger. I sat down opposite the accused, who sat quietly looking down at her desk and blinking back tears. I took off my rings and gave her my trembling hands.

She was like Mary, I thought, with her downcast eyes filled with tears. People like Mary can’t bite back when somebody who is more powerful than they are is cruel to them. When soldiers marched her bleeding, half-naked son off to his terrible death, Mary followed behind with her friends. Nobody who was in charge would do anything to help her. I doubt if she even asked. Of course not. She knew nobody anywhere around could or would do anything to make it stop. So she stood and took it, because there was nothing else to do and she wasn’t about to leave him.

We go to the nail place, Rose and I, sometimes when we’re feeling a little sad, something she and I have in common. I took her as soon after her back surgery as she could ride in the car, and we brought a pillow from home so she could sit in the vibrating chair and do something that would make her feel pretty again. We find our boxes and choose our colors from among the gemlike little pots. The manicurists are invariably cheerful, even at seven o’clock on a Thursday night, when they’ve been bent over peoples’ hands and crouched over peoples’ feet all day. Thursday’s the last day you can get the weekday price for a manicure and pedicure and so they’re always very busy on Thursdays. They sing their hellos to us in soft voices that sound to me like the voices of little girls.

I am feeling much better these days, thank you, but sometimes I get “Fed Up” just for old times sake. I think of Maxine, the imaginary manicurist who named “Fed Up.” God bless you, Max, wherever you are. And of the young woman who cried and the bitter woman who made her cry. Bless you, honey, and stay in school, you hear? And bless you, Ma’am, and maybe you should think about seeing somebody professionally, and I don’t mean a manicurist. Of the Russian woman following the American dream and winding up doing nails instead of working as a chemist. Bless you, and welcome to our country. Welcome. It will not always be like this.
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