We called my mom’s mom “Gram.” She lost her husband to a heart attack at forty-two, turning her suddenly into a single parent of five kids. Five. After two kids, I imagine they just raise themselves because no one remembers to look for them when they’re lost or feed them when they’re hungry. My mom was the baby of the family. And by baby, I mean baby baby. Her oldest brother and sister were at least fifteen years older than she was. Talk about parenting at different speeds all at the same time . . . alone. Gram was incredible.
Let me tell you what I remember about Gram:
She had a deep and rough voice that could probably be attributed to cigarettes; cigarettes that I had been trained as an elementary school student to “just say no” to. For some reason, though, it was ok when Gram smoked. I was fine with everything Gram did. To this day, when I pass a person with a cigarette, I breathe in as deeply as I can. I fill myself up with the smell of Gram, even though I know it would kill my mom to know that I connect those death sticks with her beloved mother.
Gram lived in a tiny house right outside the city of Cleveland, and it was so tiny that I got to share the bed with her when we stayed the night. This was exciting for two reasons: 1. She had a television IN HER ROOM and it got ALL THE CHANNELS INCLUDING NICKELODEON. And 2. I felt like it made me her favorite. She had a noisy breathing pattern when she slept (the smoking and all) and I laid awake listening to it often.
Gram had a fantastic jewelry collection that she kept on a little glass tray with gold framing around the outside and the very best selection of lipstick–also kept on the same tray, but in a tiny lipstick holder with fake pressed flowers suspended within the clear plastic.
But nothing–nothing–compared to her nail polish. I remember sitting at the kitchen table watching Gram polish her nails during every single visit. She would prop one leg up on the chair across the table from her and talk loudly while she polished her pretty fingers in some fantastic shade of bright red-orange. The after-effects of the polish were dazzling. Her jewelry looked fancier. The way she moved her hands while she talked looked more graceful. I was instantly taken.
Sometimes she would polish my tiny fingers at the same table. She had polish pens with large felt tips that would fill my whole nail in one swipe. It smelled like chemicals and paint (with a hint of cigarette smoke) and I wanted to swim in it. When I woke the next morning, I would notice my nails and then be excited all over at how pretty I felt. Gram let me be pretty with her.
Then, when I was in sixth grade, she died suddenly. I was in the midst of my middle school anxiety and if you saw my yearbook picture, you would know why. I felt anything but pretty for a large chunk of that time. But my visits with Gram would include the perfect shade of nail polish because she didn’t see any difference between middle school me and the me who was pretty enough to share her polish.
And then she was gone.
When we arrived at her house to stay during all of the funeral proceedings, I walked up the tight entry stairs and stared at the small kitchen table where she should have been sitting. I looked next at my unpainted fingernails and felt a loss deeper than any I had felt before. I moved through the house to her room–our room–and stared at the bed, the lipstick holder and jewelry tray, and time froze. I can’t tell you how the minutes and hours passed to the day of the funeral. I was still standing in her room not believing.
The day of the funeral arrived, and I dressed in some unremarkable outfit that my mom had selected. There was an awkward amount of waiting between being ready and actually leaving because of all the people sharing space, so I waited in Gram’s room. It was quiet there, and it felt like everyone else was avoiding the feeling of her within.
I soaked in all of the beautiful items on her dresser, just like before, except with heaviness now. I knew that if Gram were here, she would tell me how much easier the day would be if we added a little beauty to it. She would sit me down at her kitchen table and polish my nails a shade of bright red-orange and it would be all wrong for a funeral but she wouldn’t care because it wasn’t about the place you were going or the people that would be there. Polish was a beautiful thing she did for her beautiful self because it made her smile. It made her remember the other tiny beautiful bits of the world that existed for no other reason than to be beautiful.
So obviously, I polished my nails. I polished them for the funeral. And for special occasions after that. And for first days of school and first dates and softball games and my daughters’ special events and vacation and any regular Tuesday that needed a touch of something beautiful. Nail polish is a touchstone for me; a reminder to come back to the truths I know about beauty. A reminder to gather up all the beautiful bits of the world that exist for no other reason than to be beautiful.
It’s spring break this week for my girls and me. We aren’t going anywhere or making any big plans for even changing out of our pajamas. There will be arguments over shared toys and too much time together and who gets to pick lunch–all of the un-beautiful bits of life as we know it. But nestled somewhere between those bits, there will be polish for all of us. And it will be bright and beautiful. And it will do its job: to remind us of beauty. And Gram.
Kelly Cheney is an eighth-grade English teacher, mom of daughters, and major nail polish enthusiast. She would love to hear from you via email at email@example.com or you can follow her on Instagram @kncheney–as long as you’re strictly interested in pictures of aforementioned daughters and/or nail polish.