When Skin Remembers
As callously as an invading army, age occupied my mother's hands. It settled,
joint by joint, into her bones until her fingers, once strong enough to carry
hot, heavy pans from the oven to the table, once supple enough to grip the
handle of a golf club, began to jut away from one another at unpredictable
angles. Artery by artery, age reduced the flow of blood to her extremities,
until her white and malleable fingernails turned as tan and tough as shellac.
Taken together, these ravages of war conspired against my mother's
independence. Right-handed, she could still cut the fingernails on her left.
With the nail scissors in her left hand, however, she was no match for the
stubborn nails on her right. And so, one day, when I arrived at her apartment
after work, she greeted me with a request.
"Do you think," she began in a tone I scarcely recognized, a meek tone
permeated with defeat. "Do you think you could clip the nails on my right
hand? I can manage the ones on my left but...." She gave up trying to explain.
Instead, she held her right hand out over her walker and I could see how far
the nails extended beyond the ends of her fingers, measuring in centimeters
how dependent she had become.
"Sure," I said, feeling unsure. "Sure, I'd be glad to try."
The truth is, I was afraid. I'm not good with my hands. I can't fix things or
sew. I don't even garden. The one time I braided my stepdaughter's hair, one
braid started at the middle of her head, the other down by her neck.
What's more, we have never been a physical family. Which is not to say we are
not close. I still repeat stanzas from the poems my mother and I read together
in the evenings after I finished my homework. Every day I rely on the sense of
humor my father taught me, and I still smile when I think of the puns he made
and the way he'd walk and pretend to stumble. But after reaching adolescence,
I don't remember ever putting my arms around my mother's body, ever standing
on tiptoe to kiss my father's cheek. Between us, touch, the friction of skin
against skin, took on the supernatural power of a taboo. And now, here was my
eighty-one-year-old mother holding out her hand.
Three years ago, she agreed to move to my city, to take an apartment in an
assisted-living facility two blocks from where I live. We have never discussed
it, of course, but we both knew what the move meant: that over time my mother
would come to need me more and more, that inevitably our family taboo against
physical contact would crumble under the weight of her accumulating years.
Inspired, no doubt, by television coverage of Mother Theresa, I even invented
a nurturing image of myself. There I am on a narrow hospital bed, one arm
cradling my mother's deteriorating body, the other spooning nourishing broth
between her thin, dry lips.
On the way to the bureau in the bedroom where my mother keeps her nail
scissors, reality inserted itself between me and my image the way a cloud
inserts itself between a stargazer and the moon. Instead of a hospital bed, I
saw my mother's tidy twin bed with its watch-plaid cover. I saw the white,
institutional towels hanging neatly on a rack in her bathroom. And, in the
mirror that covers the sliding door on her closet, I saw my own frightened
I carried the scissors into the living room and moved her walker away from the
chair by the table where she always sits to do her crossword puzzles and read
her books. I stood beside her. I smelled the whiskey in her drink and the
shampoo the beautician uses on her hair. Shewas holding out her right hand and
shewas talking, nervously it seemed to me, about how difficult it was for her
to hold the scissors and how tough her fingernails have become. "Like old
boots," was the phrase she used. I slipped the thumb and index finger of my
right hand through the loops on the handles of her scissors and took her right
hand in my left one. Her skin felt dry. It reminded me of the brittle pages in
the old books I'd find on some remote shelf when I was a librarian.
I began—foolishly, I now understand, since the thumbnail is the toughest nail
of all—with her thumb. I spread the scissor blades and closed them around a
slice of nail. My mother jerked her hand away, afraid that I would nick her
skin. I tried again, and this time she held her thumb still, but the blades
skidded across the nail's surface. I tried a few more times, but I couldn't
make the scissors cut.
I was sweating underneath my shirt. I felt ashamed at my incompetence and
awkward about our physical proximity. I'm embarrassed to confess that a notice
I saw in the assisted-living facility newsletter popped into my mind. Each
week, the notice said, a nursing assistant is available to help residents with
foot care, which means cutting their toenails and tending to their calluses.
It crossed my mind that the same nursing assistant might also help my mother
with the fingernails on her right hand. Then I remembered Charles, a dog my
partner and I had for fifteen years. When it was time for him to be
euthanized, I was so frightened of sobbing at the vet's office that I refused
to keep him company while he died. I let my partner take
him to the vet alone.
I smiled at my mother, trying to look brave. "I've got some nail clippers in
my bag," I told her. "Let me give them a try." When I opened the clipper's
teeth over that same section of thumbnail and pressed down hard, the teeth
snapped together and a yellowish-white moon arced out over the blacktopped
table. My mother and I both spoke at the same time, elation in my voice,
surprise mingled with relief in hers. "It worked," I said. "Good, Connie,"
said my mother. "You did it."
I continued, then, clipping my mother's fingernails, moving from the thumb on
to the index finger, working clockwise around each nail, reducing the field of
yellowish-white a slice at a time. My sense of accomplishment grew with every
centimeter I conquered.
Now, we have a routine. Every so often, when I arrive at my mother's
apartment, she tells me that it's "old boot" time. With a gesture that feels
strangely ordinary, I reach out and take her hand. Perhaps our skin has
memories. Perhaps my adult hand remembers in childhood holding hers.
It takes more than one care-taking act to reverse a long-standing taboo. With
each act, though, you chip away, you press down and fragments of family
resistance fly off in unpredictable directions. I don't know what part of my
mother will surrender to age next but when it does surrender, and it will,
I'll try to remember that first slice of nail, how it looked, among the books
and crossword puzzles on the black surface of her table, like a moon on its
back, like an open bowl filled with clouds and stars.