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My Mother’s Toenails

By Marcia Aldrich

As her memory darkened, I did not see my mother. What hold time held upon my mother loosened and, like a shawl, slipped. My father worried that she would walk out the front door in her nightgown, with an empty black purse slung over her arm, into traffic she would not see, having forgotten her glasses on the nightstand. She might spread her high pink-paneled arms, with head sunk low, stretching both arms together until she was out of view.

She slept soundly, great pink flamingo arms fanning across the pillows into the bright morning. She saw no reason to get up. One day became the next, a piece in a featureless run of time. Late she rose on thin, ungainly legs, calling out for my father in a voice unsteady, and then made her way into the living room, where he had been reading for hours. By noon she grew soft and weepy and collapsed on the couch for her afternoon nap. Often she seemed to be walking with a man she thought was her father, side by side through an apple orchard in a place she once lived.

I should not have allowed my father to cancel my visits because of my mother’s mood swings. Fearing she might completely disappear, I showed up on their doorstep without warning. I arrived on a scalding August morning and parked among the smoldering Buicks and Mercurys in the parking lot adjacent to the complex of condominiums where they had moved. My father puffed towards me on the narrow pathway and then guided me through their quarters. Two bedrooms, one for my mother, one for my father, anchored opposite ends of the condominium. Both doors were closed. In response to my father’s call, out of one of these bedrooms emerged my mother in a long flamingo nightgown.

The woman who shuffled into the room, who had spent eighty years maintaining an impeccable, dignified appearance, no longer made the effort. Everything had fallen—her features, her shoulders, her chest, her arches. Her glasses, bent and dirty, slid down her bruised and mottled nose. She was a shy child who had been coaxed from behind the closet door where she had been hiding. She seemed apologetic, yet I thought I caught a glint of mischievousness, as if her appearance were a disguise she had assumed to shock me. My father, practiced in covering her lapses, said, “Look, Marjorie—Marcia is here to see you.” Five minutes later, she may not have known me. Abrasions and scabs ran up and down her arms and legs, which she scratched as in a daze. She laughed at something, and then suddenly began to weep. I moved down the couch to be closer to her. She turned to me and said, “Baby girl, my lost girl.”

Her feet were housed in white, open-toed satin slippers. Her nails had grown so long that they curled over her toes and underneath, spreading upon the floor. They were a thick, waxy yellow, hard and prehistoric. Did she not notice? She had to notice, for she couldn’t walk properly, scuttling across the floor like a crab. Perhaps the nails had grown so tough, so thick and obdurate, that she no longer had the strength to cut them. My sister had spoken to me about my mother’s toenails, how ashamed my father was of her that he wouldn’t take her out, and yet how hesitant my sister was to cross one of the final boundaries into matters of personal hygiene. She had located a podiatrist who made house calls but was booked until mid-September. No one knew whether my mother would allow a stranger to attend to her feet.

At first I had to avert my eyes from my mother’s toenails. It unsettled me to see how she had been robbed of her humanity. But I was wrong. After awhile, her toe nails no longer bothered me. I found an emotional core of many colors, that radiating outward gave her a new kind of loveliness—not the beauty of physical care and perfection, but something more essential, perhaps seen only when the body has been harvested.

Two days before the appointment with the podiatrist, my mother suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She went to her death with her toenails unclipped, intact.


 

Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. The present essay is from a collection with the working title Of. She has recently completed Secretary of Death, a case study of a suicide. Her memoir Girl Rearing was published in 1998.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore