My mother’s nails are split, broken. They snag my skin as I help her out of the shower. In the evening, I begin filing them with an emery board. She offers each finger except the one that hasn’t grown a nail since she was a baby crawling after her mother in the kitchen. One blind step back and mother ripped off daughter’s nail; eighty years later, that moment is preserved in a tiny spot of skin puckered and concave.
Where does history live? Not the wars-and-famine type, but that personal narrative we connect from one ancestor to another until we reach ourselves. That history. The one linking us to the kitchen in another country, to the grandmother long dead, to the people who gave us stick-straight hair.
One day, walking through a crafts store, I turned a corner and saw shelves of green. Green blocks, cones and cubes, their foam geometry so familiar that without touching them my fingertips recalled their lightness, the grit in their texture. Time shook me a little before zipping me back.
There I was, maybe twelve years old, watching my mother make flowers. Around foam balls and cubes she wrapped swatches of yellow and orange faux-fur, combed the fibers into shapes resembling tulips and cemented them with hair spray. A wire stem wrapped in green tape finished the flower, which she anchored in foam at the bottom of a vase.
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The memory was so close I was gripped by a desire to hold my mother’s hands and inspect the whorls of her thumbs, the lines of her palms. Dementia had erased me from her mind. Did I still live in her skin? Hundreds of miles separate us, so I reached for the foam, remembered the curve of her fingers as she crafted kitsch. The same hands that worked machines at a factory and washed pans in a cafeteria — those hands also liked to create. Besides her faux flora, she doodled on napkins and scraps of paper: Women’s faces squeezed between math problems and grocery lists; piglets with pointy feet and corkscrew tails.
Could I have pressed my hand against my mother’s in that store, how closely would my skin have mirrored hers?
In elementary school I spent hours scratching out pictures with a yellow No. 2. I basked in the knowledge that among my peers, my artistic abilities were unmatched. Until a boy with thick, black hair came along in fourth or fifth grade. His gift was more developed and envy ate at me for a while. Then, one day, he saw me filling in the colors of a skunk I’d sketched. “Did you draw that?” he asked. When I nodded, he dipped his own chin in respect, and the envy faded.
I didn’t become an artist. I found my calling in storytelling — first as a photojournalist, painting images with light, and later as a writer, filling in lines with words. What became of the boy who liked my skunk drawing, I don’t know. I don’t even remember his name.
Me? At mid-life, I’ve turned to watercolor. Not to revive a dream from my youth, but to examine the world through a different prism. I want to see the layers and the washes that create the painting. I want to touch the underpinnings of story. What girding, thickened by time’s scar tissue, bolsters it? What erosion has occurred, and how long before it shifts or buckles to reveal a different truth? Isn’t some version of this what I seek through the lens and the words?
Now, I file my mother’s nails into smooth arcs and recall how the memory of her flowers hit me with the accuracy of an unmanned drone in that store. Turning over her hands, I discover the pads of her fingers are now soft, her prints fading with time. Still, I search them for an outline of myself.