I followed a set of fingernails down the hall one day at school. Not just ordinary fingernails, but amazingly long fingernails. Each one, and yes, there were ten of them growing from each of one of my colleague’s fingertips, was at least two inches long. It makes my skin crawl just to think of them.
The long fingernails reminded of a book my Aunt Millie used to have called Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was a compilation of the best and weirdest from the newspaper column by that name which ran in newspapers across the country. Each time I visited Aunt Millie’s house in Florida, when I was a kid, I read it from cover to cover with horrified fascination. One item which particularly repulsed me was the rather sinister drawing of an ancient Mandarin official with fingernails like croton leaves which corkscrewed and bent back on themselves. They were three feet long. Believe it or not.
It seems that during a period in Chinese history, men of a certain class let their nails grow extremely long as a symbol of their exalted position. The longer the nails grew, the less able were the officials were to perform any sort of labor, and finally, any sort of task at all. Others had to do everything for them. This was a sign of great power and wealth. Paradoxically, the more helpless the men were, the more powerful they were. This is the same kind of thinking that produced the custom of binding feet. Women of the upper classes in that same country became utterly dependent on others to move them from place to place because their tiny, mutilated bound feet were thought to be a sign of beauty. Ripley’s drawing of the nails was meant to be grotesque, to shock, and it did. So did hearing about bending little girls’ feet back and tying them. And, like so many things which shock at an early age, they formed an indelible impression.
In China, it was certain men who grew their nails so long. In our culture, it is certain women. Being a lifelong short-nailed person, I don’t pretend to know what motivates someone to grow really long nails or to have acrylic ones glued on. I have trouble imagining what makes a woman spend 75 dollars plus to have inch long slivers of plastic, called backscratchers by some, glued over her own nails. This is only the beginning of a ritual meeting with a manicurist. A ritual which involves shaping, polishing, buffing and who knows what else. These pseudo-nails must be periodically reapplied by the manicurist to hide the nail’s natural growth, like coloring your roots. But, this is the fashion among certain women. Women who stop short of the kind of nails I followed down the hall.
The nails I followed down the hall were different. They were natural. Our school secretary wore long acrylic nails. I asked her how she was able to type with such nails. She demonstrated for me. She used the pads of her fingers rather than the tips. Typing that way didn’t seem to slow her down. I mentioned the fingernails I had seen. The secretary told me that they were much shorter they used to be. I was amused that her reaction to the natural nails was much the same as mine: They turned her stomach.
I wonder what kind of life a person with fingernails that long must lead. Certainly, no life that resembles mine. How does she dial her phone, zip a zipper or pick up anything tiny? I wonder why she grows them so. Perhaps it is just because she can. Is it a display of power and status like the Mandarins, or simply vanity?
I think of all the things she can no longer touch with her fingertips, of cheeks she can no longer caress, babies she can no longer cuddle, of hands that must go unheld, of how her lover’s lips must go untraced. I wonder why someone would pay such a price for status, for power, or for vanity.
“Patty, Tommy’s here,” I yelled from the doorway.
Patty flew out the front door. I was right behind her.
“Mary, come back here,” Mother called.
“Why? I want to say goodbye too.”
“You just give them a few minutes alone. Then we can all go out and tell Tommy goodbye.”
This didn’t seem at all fair to me. I was supposed to be watching for the movers. How could I do that from the kitchen? And besides, I loved Tommy, too. I waited until Mother stuck her head back in the refrigerator, and then slipped out the back way. I carefully closed the screen door on the back porch. Walking close to the house, I ran my hand along the white stucco. When I got to the front, I peeked my head around the corner. No Patty and Tommy in sight. His car was gone so they must have gone for a little ride. I walked back up to the front steps, sat down and hugged my knees.
I didn’t last long like that. I got up and ran to the end of the sidewalk. Perched on the curb I could look far down Wilson Dam Boulevard. From there I could see almost into the town of Sheffield. That’s where the movers had gone when they left last night. There was an orange truck coming. I was sure it was the one, so I ran across the yard toward the house yelling, “The movers are coming. The movers are here.”
They pulled up and parked as Daddy came out of the house.
“You can finish up in the bedrooms. The beds are ready to go in and there are a few boxes with bedding to go. My wife is almost through in the kitchen.” Daddy issued them their orders too.
“Yes sir, Mr. Stout,” said the man who drove the pickup truck. “We’ll be finished up in no time. These boys know how to load a truck. I’ll say that about them.”
Just then my brother came out of the house with a couple of suitcases.“Will you unlock the trunk so I can put these in?” He asked Daddy. “I can’t find Patty’s suitcase.”
Daddy unlocked the trunk of our car then went back in the house yelling for Patty to bring her suitcase out to put in the car.
I sat down on the sidewalk in the shade of the moving van. I was not in the way, but I could watch the men bring things out of the house and put them in the van
All of a sudden Daddy came running out the front door looking very angry. I had seen that look before and knew better than to ask him any questions. He ran across the street to the Crosby’s and banged on their front door. Mother came along behind him. I could see she was crying, but I had gotten used to that. Mother and Patty had been crying a lot lately. They were both sad to be moving.
Daddy came back out of the neighbor’s house. I heard him tell my mother that he had called the police and that they were going to try to catch “them”. With that, my mother really started crying. I ran over and hugged her.
“Don’t cry, Momma,” I piped. I was scared now. “Why did Daddy call the police? Did someone steal something?”
Daddy glared at me.
“Hush now. Patty and Tommy have run off to get married. The police are going to bring them back.”
A deathly silence settled over our house. The movers kept on bringing furniture and boxes out of the house and placing them carefully in the van.
A long time passed. It was almost lunch time when I saw Tommy’s car turn onto our street. It was closely followed by a police car. They both pulled up behind the moving van. The policeman got out of his car first. His light blue uniform was already showing dark areas under his armpits and on this back where the sweat had soaked through. Tommy and Patty just sat in his car snuggled up next to each other. Daddy was standing in the shade of the sweet gum tree smoking his Chesterfield’s one after another.
“Well, Mr. Stout. I caught up with them, but there’s not much I can do. Your daughter is 18 and she can get married if she wants.”
“Let me talk to them,” Daddy said. His jaws were clinched and his face was dark red.
Just then my mother came out of the house, grabbed my hand and took me inside. I struggled for a moment.
“You get in the house this minute and stay there.” I knew from her tone I was out of options. I went in the house and found an open window to watch from.
Daddy was talking to Tommy and Patty through the car window. I couldn’t hear a word, but after a while Patty kissed Tommy and got out of the car and headed into the house with her suitcase in her hand. Tommy and Daddy shook hands and then Tommy drove away.
The movers finished up and closed the big double doors on the van. Two of the men got in the cab and drove away. I waved to them and shouted,
“See you in Idaho.”
My family made one last trip through the house, then all got into our blue Buick Roadmaster. Mother, Daddy and Nancy were in the front seat. Patty, Junior and I were in back with me perched on the fold down armrest in the middle.
My father started the car, shifted the gears and we pulled away. No one said a thing about what happened as we waved to the neighbors who had come to see us off.
Though I wrote this piece several years ago, I think the questions are still timely.
In an issue of the New York Times, Fred Bernstein wrote about structural problems with one of the most recognizable buildings in this country, a house called Fallingwater. Built in 1936 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this structure does indeed perch over a water fall. Surprisingly, both the house and water are enhanced by the placement, just as Wright intended. Cantilevers thrust the house into space echoing the water as it changes levels over the rocks. The effect is stunning. The effect may end soon.
The house is in danger of succumbing to gravity and tumbling down the cliff just as the water does because of the shortsightedness of one of this century’s great visionaries. Wright’s prickly personality was well known. He hated to be told what to do to the point of being a contrarian. As a result of this sort of hubris, his masterpiece is in danger of becoming a pile of broken concrete at the bottom of the cliff it now leans over. When the contractor who was building the house suggested that there was not enough steel in the structure to support the weight of the concrete, Wright had one of his artistic snits and threatened to quit. Wright eventually got his way, or so he thought. Now nature is having hers, even though when Wright wasn’t around, the contractor sneaked twice as much steel into the structure as Wright called for. Despite this secret shoring, the concrete, which usually stabilizes in a year, continues to bend. The cantilevers droop lower and lower. Without buttressing the layers of flying concrete will eventually no longer be able to support themselves.
It is a temptation to consider the possibility that it was Wright’s plan that art imitate nature to the ultimate degree at Fallingwater. That the structure would eventually follow the water as it seeks a lower level. Such thinking requires a stretch, a large stretch. A stretch which would have to account for other Wright design flaws like flat roofs that leak and furniture that is striking in situ, but horrible to sit upon.
As I read Bernstien’s article, I smirked at one comment a visitor made about Wright. He said, “It’s surprising that as good an architect as Wright screwed up.” I thought to myself, “Humph, this guy expects him to be perfect.” Yet, in thinking about Wright and composing this exercise, that’s exactly what I caught myself doing. While I’m interested in Wright and his work, it is the problems with Fallingwater which caught and held my attention.
Like all those we admire and label “Great” or “Genius”, when we strip away the cloak of their achievements, we very likely find the inconsistencies and paradoxes the rest of us labor under. Why then, do we expect perfection in all aspects of their lives? Why then do we gloat when we find their humanity? Perhaps the difference is that those whose achievements and lives rise above the rest, manage to disentangle themselves enough from the mundane to soar. Their genius is risk that succeeded.
When will I understand you
are like water
or like sand
and I hold you best
when I open, not close
A few years ago, Charles Kuralt did an on air essay about putting the hour of sunlight that was saved by daylight savings into a jar and actually saving it for a rainy day or whenever you needed some sunshine in your life.
This idea charmed me. I could see the jar of sunlight sitting on a shelf in my closet waiting for when I would need it. When would that be? Would I choose a rainy day, one filled with twilight when I wanted to go forth in brightness? Would I choose a dark night of my soul, when I was most alone with my gloomiest imaginings and ruminations? Would I share it or keep it all for myself? Would I hoard it and only let it out a precious, glowing minute at a time, trying to make the brief hour last for the six months of its shelf life?
I suppose what is most ironic about this jar of sunshine is that it is only available when we need it least, when the days are growing longer, when the light is with us more. As the days grow shorter, about the first of November, we have to dump whatever is left from the glowing jar and replace it with an hour of darkness. As with most things in life, when we need it the most, we have the least. I am rarely tempted to open the jar of gloom I get each November, and nearly always have a full jar waiting to be exchanged the next spring.
Of course, these thoughts are just that: silly imaginings, flights of fancy. Time is a theoretical construct, a will o’ the wisp, something that is there, but not there. We quantify it. Measure it. Record it. Bill for it. Waste it. Save it. Spend it. Subject it to relativity. But, we cannot create or destroy it as in “He who kills time, wounds eternity.” I think it was Elizabeth I of England who observed that despite all her power, she could not add one minute to her life. It follows that even those who control the daylight saved time must give back what they take away.