Nail polish and stories created lovely memories of my grandmother, says Sam Wilson.
My grandmother taught me how to look after my nails. Every time my parents went on a trip, my widowed grandmother would be flown in and installed in the spare room. Within hours, the room would acquire her smell: hair spray, Estee Lauder Pleasures, some unnamed old lady powder and... nail polish remover.
I loved the smell of that room.
As the only girl in a household of boys, it was my right to spend the evenings with my grandmother in her room, doing our nails. She would lay out all her apparatus - the emery boards, the clippers, the cuticle sticks, the top, bottom and side coats, the jewelled varnishes - and I would bring a bowl of warm water and some towels.
Of course, I am not a girlie girl, so my Granny was a tad thwarted in her bonding.
“Samantha dear, are you really set on having your nails done in black and white checks?” she would ask plaintively, rigorously preparing her own nails for their usual Blushing Rose treatment.
“Oh yes,” I would reply, trying to toss my gelled 80s spikes and thrusting my teenage talons eagerly forward. “It, you know, goes with my look.”
To her eternal credit, my Gran would paint my nails in whatever hideous colour combination I requested, without complaint. And while she did, she’d tell me stories about my grandfather, my father and aunt as children, her own life as a 50s housewife... and much more.
I have long since stopped painting my nails, but those stories my grandmother shared with me will always hold part of my soul. And however much my mother would scold my grandmother for “letting the girl out of the house looking like Medusa!”, I always knew she respected that there was more being passed down on those evenings than dubious colour pairings.
And she was right. And now, when I deliver my sons to my own mother for a few days... we exchange a look which shows me that we know the process is continuing.
Just last month, my husband Andreas and I were waiting at the airport to pick our sons from their holiday with their grandparents.
“I hope they didn’t break your parents,” Andreas fretted, leaning heavily on the barrier. “They are so, well, loud, messy, rude and... mucky. What if they broke your mother’s collection of crystal animals? Or smeared mud on the TV? Or...”
I patted him on the arm affectionately.
“Honey, if there’s one thing I have learnt... it’s that the chicks in our family have hidden depths of control.”
Just as I finished my sentence, our sons emerged from behind the sliding doors of the baggage area, each with a tog bag, and a certain... otherness to them.
It took us a while to work out what it was. They were clean. With hair partings.
“Did you know they were blond?” I hissed at Andreas.
“No,” he hissed back. “Did they have collared shirts when they left?”
My eldest Josef approached us calmly and extended a hand.
“Hello parents. We had a spiffy time, golly gee!”
Sigh. Just two days and my mother managed to Walton my sons.
How powerful are the grandmothers in your family? And what memories stay fresh for you?
More by Sam Wilson