My Mama’s Manicures Taught Me How To Take Care Of Myself

For a long time, I didn’t want to be “my mother’s daughter.” But it turns out that, at least when it comes to getting our nails done, I am.

My mother likes to shine. From her glossy lips to her leopard-print leggings, she gives you something to admire. And for as long as I can remember, my mother has kept an impeccable manicure. A twinkling top coat is not enough; her polishes are frosted, sometimes glittery. She doesn’t get wild with designs very often, but does match with the holidays: bold red for Valentine’s Day, shimmering pink for Easter, burnished orange for Thanksgiving, sparkling gold for New Year’s. The only times I’ve ever seen her with ragged cuticles or no polish at all were when she was suffering from a bad case of her “nerves,” anxiety attacks that caused her to pick at her fingers until her tough, shiny veneer lay in fragments in her lap.

Mama raised three children on the meager salary of a licensed practical nurse, but always made sure to treat herself to the luxury of a manicure. In today’s language, it was her form of self-care, a way of making sure she provided for herself as she took care of everyone else. I recognize this act of self-care everywhere I go in the hands of grocery store clerks, fast-food workers, teachers — people who may not be wealthy, but want to give themselves a small, affordable treat. My mom’s nails were also one of the ways she expressed her femininity, and for years I resented the idea that I had to prove my gender through such superficial markers. But as I get older, I find myself turning to nail salons in the same way she always has.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I wasn’t a very girly girl. I hated the color pink and refused to wear the flower-print dresses she tried to steer me toward whenever we went shopping together. Mama was raised by her grandmother, and subscribed to the notion that “women should look like women.” That meant Mama didn’t leave the house without earrings, lipstick, some kind of bracelet, her hair perfect in whatever style it was. To this day, Mama still wears slips, even under denim skirts. “They make your clothes hang better,” she’ll explain. When I need her help looking for a formal gown for an event, she’ll ask me if I’m going to wear stockings. She doesn’t hide her disappointment well when I say no.

When I was younger, I bit my nails, often down to the quick. I’d get anxious about homework or become too involved in the book I was reading, and I’d chew to the point of pain. I rarely painted my nails, because I didn’t want to bring attention to my fingers. It was in the mid-’80s, when I was around 9 years old, that I started to pay attention to my mother’s nails. For a while, she’d get manicures at a local beauty school, which was considerably cheaper than going to a shop. It might have been more practical for her to keep her nails short, because she was a nurse, but she always had a bit of length to them — her own small rebellion against her job. I remember smoothing my fingers over Mama’s nails, feeling the strength of the acrylic overlay. I liked the way they looked, even if I didn’t want them for myself yet.

I also remember marveling at the Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner (aka Flo Jo) and her nails. Flo Jo was the first non-superhero I wanted to be. I didn’t hang up celebrity posters in my bedroom, but I had a picture of her, ripped from one of my father’s Sports Illustrated magazines, in my Trapper Keeper. Not only was she one of the fastest track stars of the time, but she raced with a full face of makeup, flowing extensions in her hair, and had incredible, outlandish nails — none of which stopped her from competing, and winning. Flo Jo and my mom attracted attention with their manicures in a way that seemed foreign to me, an introverted girl who always carried a book to avoid conversations. I envied their ability to be bold.

For a long time, I didn’t want to be “my mother’s daughter.” I resented it when people said we looked and acted alike; I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of her. Mama still loves dresses and skirts. I still prefer jeans and T-shirts. And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to the same types of flashy jewelry. One day, I looked up and I too had a closet full of purses and shoes. And when I became an adult and started working at jobs that left me emotionally and spiritually drained, I found myself turning toward nail salons to treat myself. Mama has a standing appointment, every payday, to get her nails done — her way of feeling like her money goes to something other than just paying bills. I’ve started doing the same.

I grew up watching my mother go to hair and nail salons, gossip with whoever was working on her, and let go of her job and all its worries. I don’t like to talk as much as she does, but I like the routine of going to see someone I know will try their best to make sure I look and feel good. Co-workers and supervisors don’t care much about that. Warm, damp towels around my hands or feet can make me forget about my anxieties for at least 10 minutes, or however long it takes for them to cool. When I’m picking out a color, one of my deciding factors is often if my mother would like my choice. And if I glance too quickly at myself in the mirror, I see Mama instead.

When I can, I treat my mother to a pedicure. My aunt, my mother’s sister, is a manicurist, and she’s been taking care of my mother’s nails for almost two decades, but Mama rarely gets her toes done. So I’ll take Mama with me to my nail salon. She likes it when the nail technicians pretend to be surprised that she has a daughter my age. She always falls asleep in the massage chair, sighing as it works the tense muscles in her back loose. “When you get rich,” she tells me when she wakes from her nap, “you have to get me one of these chairs.”

Getting our nails done together lets my mother have a little of the “girly” mother-daughter time I used to give her such a hard time about; when I accept her suggestion for a nail color, it’s like I’m finally letting her put me in a pink flower-print dress. But more than that, paying for Mama to get her nails done is a small way I can say thank you. Before the buzzword was everywhere, watching her pamper herself in a world that encourages mothers to sacrifice everything for their children helped me understand the importance of self-care.

During our Sunday calls to each other, sometimes Mama will ask if I’ve gotten my nails done, and if so, what color. It’s her way of asking if I’m taking care of myself. I’ll tell her the color and let her know I’ll take her to get a pedicure next time we see each other. It’s my way of promising I’ll always take care of her. ●

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