by Rebecca Cazanave
A couple weeks ago I painted my fingernails.
That statement in and of itself doesn’t sound too extraordinary. Except I’ve never once, in all of my life, felt the need to paint my fingernails.
For a long time, I was actually opposed to the idea. There’s just something impractical about it. The process requires time to do it well, and the paint is chipping almost as soon as you’re done. Sure, if I were at a girls’ night I’d participate in the activity. If my sister wanted to try out her new gel polish, I’d let her. Basically, if peer pressure was involved, I’d cave since it’s kind of a rite of passage for women. But never have I ever sat at home, faced with all the things I could or should be doing, and decided that I should paint my nails.
That is until a couple weeks ago when I was overcome by a sudden urge to do that very thing.
Without a second thought, I fetched my meager nail supplies and coated four nails on each hand a light purple and then opted for a dark purple/burgundy for my ring fingers. It only took a few minutes, and although flecks of paint surrounded my nailbeds, I thought the finished product looked good.
The next day though, I wasn’t happy with it. Paint coated my cuticles, which I picked off, marring the perfect shape of my nail. Plus, the light purple color felt childish, too girly. Looking at my hands, I felt like some kind of Barbie from the 90’s.
That night I rubbed it off using the blue, noxious bottle of remover I’ve had for years. The fumes stung my nose as I swabbed each nail, watching as the purple first glistened—more sure of itself than ever before—and then disappeared as the cotton ball scrubbed its surface. My fingers tingled as blueish-purple drops dotted my bathroom sink.
As soon as it was off, I started over. Why I felt the drive to do it again, to do it right, I wasn’t quite sure.
Did you know that a baby girl is born with ovaries already full of immature eggs or future ova?
They don’t develop during puberty. They don’t develop after birth at all. Every single one of the approximately four hundred eggs that a woman will release throughout her life—and millions more that she will never release—are already in her tiny body when she enters this world.
That means that when a woman carries a female child, after about 16 to 20 weeks into the pregnancy, she is also carrying all of her daughters’ children within her single womb. That means that each of us not only have our mothers to thank for carrying us into this world but our grandmothers as well.
Determined to do things differently this time, I opted to only use the deep purple—a color named Bahama Mama—the more mature color, the part I liked best from my last experiment. I shaped my nails, pushed up my cuticles, and used a blow dryer in between coats.
I sat on my couch with a composition notebook and paper towel on my lap and hunched over my hands as I coated my first nail, transforming its mundane surface into a gleaming surface of liquid purple. It was while I awed over this transformation that I was reminded of my maternal grandmother.
It was a feeling similar to when you think of your childhood backyard or maybe like when you take a bite of mashed potatoes and beef gravy after a long day at church or maybe it was like when someone you were sure did not remember you greets you by name as you pass in the grocery aisle. Whatever it was like, the feeling was felt somewhere deep, where it’s difficult to anatomically describe, and there was something warm about it.
As I painted my nails this deep purple color, I felt like my grandmother. My fabulous, smiling, vain, little, Brazilian vovó who passed away eighteen months ago.
I hadn’t remembered this in a while, but despite her swollen knuckles and twisted and bent fingers, her nails had always stood straight, looking strong and firm. They possessed an air of regality and nobility that her hands could no longer own. And most notably, they were almost always perfectly shaped and painted.
I first heard the fact about ova just a few weeks after my grandmother died. I sat in a small lecture about feminism. The speaker was a Brazilian woman who spoke in defense of motherhood and acceptance of a woman’s choice to bring children into this world. I was already feeling sentimental because my grandmother is Brazilian too— she’s the reason for my obsession with all things Brazil, for the years of Portuguese classes I’ve taken.
But when that woman talked about the connection we each have with our grandmothers and spoke of the significance of our matriarchal lines, the energy in the room seemed to sizzle around me. I never expected her address to feel so personal.
After she finished, I hovered around the refreshment table, waiting for a chance to speak with her, waiting to explain the kinship I knew we shared. I thanked her, told her I enjoyed her remarks, and explained that I’m part Brazilian because of my maternal grandmother.
It wasn’t part of my plan, but I told her about my vovó’s recent passing. As I did, the glands in the back of my mouth constricted, my face twisted, tears were coming—the emotion came so swiftly, I didn’t have a chance to fight it.
As I tried to push my already breaching emotion back under the surface, she stared back at me with wide eyes that filled with tears in response to my own.
I apologized, and she gave me a brief hug saying, “I’m glad you came” before turning to speak to the person behind me.
“Me too,” I said, but I’m not sure I meant it.
I grabbed a few pieces of celery and fled into the hall. I felt stupid for crying. I felt immature for acting like every person from Brazil was connected to me and my grandmother. I felt like I’d tried to force a weird bond with a woman I would probably never encounter again, but her words about ova and our mothers and our grandmothers have stayed with me.
Her words have reverberated in my thoughts for over a year now. I can’t stop thinking about how the potential of me that once sat dormant inside my mother for so many years, had also once sat inside my grandmother.
That seems closer than just flesh and blood and DNA. That’s amniotic—a kind of up close and personal each of us only share with those who sacrificed most for us, for those who gave their bodies to bring us into the world.
I thought my second paint attempt went much better than the first. The prep work improved the final product, but despite the use of a blow dryer, my nails didn’t set as fast as I thought they would. I fell asleep too soon after finishing, and when I woke the next day, a delicate imprint of my blanket was left on a few of my nails.
Those imprints bothered me, but not enough to fix them. They stayed like that for over a week until the chipping on the ends and around the cuticles drove me to do a sloppy touch-up job, slapping paint on top of what was already there, trying to cover up what was marred by layering a new coat.
The patch-up wasn’t done very well. My unskilled hands trembled as I tried to hide the damage. I was less than satisfied with the results, but I was out of town and didn’t have remover with me.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about ova, all the ova that rested with me within my mother’s ovaries, about the ones that rested with her in my grandmother’s. I think about the potential life within me, about each egg I’ve dropped that has become no one.
These thoughts were further spurred as I recently watched a TV show where a nineteen-year-old girl auditioned for a singing competition. She brought with her the mother who carried, birthed, and raised her and also the egg donor who made her life possible. The girl had recently discovered the egg donor and was shocked to find that she attended the same college this woman once attended and sang in the same acapella group that she had once sung in.
She brought both her mother and her egg mother to support her audition.
They shared so many similarities without having any contact throughout their lives. They shared interests, talents, even singing styles, all of which must have been inherent in their make-up. All nature, no nurture.
I look at my nails. Would I feel this urge, this need to paint them if I’d never known my grandmother? Maybe I would have coated my nails with Bahama Mama even if I’d never admired my vovó’s beauty and her commitment to her appearance. Maybe it’s not so much a part of my subconscious as a part of who I am because of some kind of amniotic relationship. I spent time in her womb, and maybe that’s enough to make me want to paint my nails, to have regal nails.
The day after I returned to town, I got back to work. The blue remover sat open on the bathroom counter as I slathered each of my nails with moist cotton balls. I then pressed and wiped, scrubbed and soaked.
The Bahama Mama color was more reluctant to part with me than I’d expected. It took several cotton balls to clear my nail surfaces, but even then, the deepest creases and some parts of the soft cuticle still held red residue. It wasn’t ideal, but it was good enough to start over.
When I turned to leave the bathroom, I did a doubletake as I saw the garbage can in my peripheral. The squashed and deep purple- red stained cotton balls were unsettling. It reminded me of the blood- soaked garbage that I’ve seen in women’s bathrooms before, the garbage that stands out bold, calling attention to the invisible fact of another ovum that lived and died, another person that isn’t.
My grandmother liked us to call her Vovó which is Portuguese for granny. It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I studied Portuguese and learned that the word for grandmother is actually avó.
Although I know that there’s no linguistic significance, somehow it feels like I’ve cracked some kind of code because I realized that if you ignore the acute accent, avó spelled backwards is really ova.
It makes sense to me that by reversing my grandmother, I come back to ova. Or maybe it’s more significant to look at it the other way. By following the life of ova—through the long slow passage of time where thousands of eggs waste away, hundreds are released and purged, just a few are fertilized and birthed as human beings, and even fewer are birthed as girls who then repeat the cycle—you get an avó.
My third paint attempt was less than two days ago. And although the third time was the most thorough and the result has been the best so far, I find new flaws. There are parts on the sides of my nails that I’ve failed to reach, and I’ve noticed that my coats weren’t as even as I’d thought.
What’s more, I find thin red lines left on the papers I’ve touched and the books I’ve read. It’s as if someone with a sharp, deep-red crayon is following me around, but in reality, the paint has rubbed off the very tips of some of my fingers, leaving the finest sliver of nail that frowns at me when light shines through it.
The Bahama Mama refuses to go on perfectly and then mocks me by refusing to stay on. And I wonder how long it needs to last for me to consider it lasting. Is an hour enough? A whole day? Maybe a week would feel sufficient.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to make it perfect and to keep it perfect. Why this fierce commitment to my nails after twenty-three years of neglect? Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like my vovó. Maybe having nails like her makes me more like her even if my teeth are not naturally straight, my skin not as olive, and my Portuguese less than fluent.
Even if it doesn’t make me anything, it at least helps me remember her.
The paint on my nails barely stands a chance.
Only the perfect combination of circumstances and timing will allow it to become anything other than incomplete. For now though, the paint is exposed. It faces the torrent of water that flows out of the faucet each time I wash my hands. It tangles in my hair as I shampoo my scalp. It files off as I carelessly let my hand brush the page I hold or bump the table’s edge as I set the paper back down.
I’m fighting a constant battle against entropy and against forgetting, against losing her again.
But today I stopped by the store and picked up a topcoat. It’s a thick, clear fluid that is supposed to create a seal to preserve the color, to delay damage to the paint beneath even if that means its own unseen surface is marred and chipped and damaged first.
I’m hoping it will help.