We were sitting at my sister’s birthday lunch, waiting for a few stragglers to make it to the restaurant before we ordered, and I was absent-mindedly drumming my fingernails on the table as I read over the menu. My other sister, Gail, grabbed my hand and held it up to the light.

“I have never seen you with fingernails like this before,” she exclaimed. “And I certainly never heard you make noise on a tabletop with them before. Grandma would be so proud of you.”

And I was instantly nine again, trying so hard to make my fingernails grow, to keep my hands away from my mouth, to break the nervous habit I wasn’t even aware I had until my grandmother pointed it out to me and promised both Gail and me manicure kits if we could prove we could grow our nails “like young ladies” for an entire month.

The manicure kits were so pretty—fancy, little, pink, leather cases that opened up to reveal a shiny metal emery board, cuticle file, and tiny scissors intricate enough to shape my as yet nonexistent fingernails.

Six-year-old Gail had never had an issue with nail-biting. She was also blond, cute as a button, and charmed all the dance teachers with her ballet performances. I was jealous of the fact she could do walkovers, too. Every time I tried to make my feet go over my head, I chickened out. It made me dizzy.

My lack of fingernails seemed just another deficiency, and I was determined to make it through the month to prove myself to my grandma and earn my manicure kit.

Now, of course, I know that breaking a nervous habit by becoming even more nervous was doomed from the get-go, but I was convinced as a starry-eyed 9- year-old I could win the prize. I tried covering my hands with gloves when I was at home, sitting on them when watching television, writing clever notes to myself as reminders, and painting my fingernails with clear polish.

I shared my ideas with my mom and grandma, and they were behind me all the way. But habits are habits for a reason, and someone was always pointing the obvious out to me. When I was studying or reading or riding in the car, my hands tended to unknowingly wander to my mouth. 

At the end of the month, I was firmly convinced grandma knew how hard I’d tried and would give me the manicure kit as a reward for my outstanding efforts. But she didn’t, and I felt like a failure, and worse, I’d let my grandmother down.

She confided in me as an adult that she was miserable having to abide by her rule, realizing her plan had backfired miserably. She hadn’t wanted to punish me, but to reward me when the month was up.

My fingernails never really grew. When my kids were little, my hands were always in water. As a working woman, a great part of my day involved typing, and it was easier to have them short anyway.

Once in a while, I indulged in fake nails with outstandingly definitive colors, like sapphire blue and autumn pumpkin. It was fun, but the upkeep was bothersome and expensive.

When my grandmother passed away, she left a list of bequeaths for my aunt to fulfill.

I had requested a set of marble, horse bookends, for I was my grandmother’s proud reader and lover of words. I was so happy to have them as a reminder of her. What I wasn’t expecting was her bequeathment of her own intricately embroidered manicure case, the one she used to keep her nails beautiful into her 89th year. I cried as I opened it and tenderly removed each of the tarnished tools. She knew I’d tried; she knew I had wanted so desperately please her. The gift was her unspoken acknowledgment of my efforts so many years before, and her forgiveness at my failure.

And now, my fingernails grow. Not as often in water, even though we never did buy a dishwasher. No longer typing on a daily basis now that I’m retired. And maybe, just maybe, because I don’t worry over them anymore. My fingernails grow, and I can drum them on a tabletop and smile, just because . . . 

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Vicki Bahr

I'm a mother of four, grandmother of seven, wife of John for forty five years and incurable optimist, word lover, and story sharer. I've worked and played at many careers, from proofreader to preschool teacher, human interest newspaper columnist to medical records clerk. Each path has afforded me the opportunity to appreciate the warmth of humanity and to hopefully spread a lifetime of smiles, empathy, and God's inspiration along the way. My life continues to be one of delight. With experience comes understanding, with understanding comes peace.