I have been rubbed, scrubbed, buffed, and scraped. I’ve been wrapped in banana leaves and lavender and towels soaked in chamomile tea. I’ve been exfoliated with rare pink sea salt, cornmeal, loofahs, flower petals; soaked in Malbec, sulfuric springs, water from the South China Sea. In India I had a head massage with oils that I couldn’t wash out for weeks. I’ve stretched out naked on beaches from Hawaii to Vietnam for massages, had hot stones and cold cucumbers placed on my body, been oxygenated, squeezed, pounded, and once even kissed, all for the delights of loosening muscles or obtaining glowing skin or just to feel pretty.
But there was one thing I had never done. Ever. Me, who loves spas and beauty treatments, was still, technically, a virgin.
Left alone all day and night on a cruise ship slowly heading to Bermuda while my mother gambled in the onboard casino, I naturally headed to the spa. I’d read about it months earlier, when the first brochures arrived, and dreamed of the hot-stone massage or Balinese stress remedy I’d get aboard ship. But after the coldest, snowiest winter on record, a winter where I did what I do every winter—hastily smear dark silver polish on my toenails and leave it there until spring arrives or it just fades away—the dream of my toes in pink sand under a warm Bermuda sun led me to book a pedicure.
“Choose a color,” Latoya ordered as she prepared a bubbling foot bath.
Without hesitating, I plucked a metallic blue from the shelf and handed it to her. Then I stood, barefoot and confused, unsure what to do next.
Latoya eyeballed the remaining streaks of silver on my big toes.
“When was your last pedicure?” she asked me. I glanced around the thankfully empty spa.
“Uh,” I said. “Never.”
The truth was out. There I was, squarely in middle age, and I’d never had a pedicure or a manicure. Even though my body had been massaged and rubbed countless times, my nails had never been touched.
In the Italian-American home of my childhood, nail polish was not an option. We were a family that worked with our hands. My mother stuffed Easter baskets and Christmas stockings in a novelty-candy factory; my grandmother kneaded dough and rolled gnocchi and planted tomatoes. Their hands were not pretty or ornamental. No, their hands had calluses and small cuts and torn cuticles. They didn’t wear makeup, either. My grandmother not at all, my mother just a splash of bright lipstick, orange or hot pink or red. No one used lotions or creams, except Vaseline on heels and elbows. Although my mother and her sisters made weekly trips to the hairdresser, who teased and sprayed until their hair became unmovable, none of them went to spas for anything. In fact, until Jordan Marsh opened at the mall, there wasn’t anywhere to go.
I saw my hands the same way. They were working-class hands. After college, I went to work as a flight attendant for TWA. Around me, pretty women flashed painted nails shaped into ovals or square-tipped. I succumbed to the luxuries of rich moisturizers and blush that matched the maroon stripes in my Ralph Lauren uniform and the magic in a tube of pink-and-green Great Lash mascara. For someone who’d relied solely on flavored lip gloss as makeup, these new pleasures felt positively decadent. But my fingers popped hundreds of pop tops on cans of soda and beer as I made my way back and forth across the country, the world. The nails broke and split as I popped those tops. Polish? Why bother?
As my fingers opened cans, my feet walked. More than a million miles, up and down the aisles of 747s and L-1011s. In high heels. If manicures seemed useless, pedicures were downright ridiculous. At home in my little Greenwich Village apartment, I went barefoot, and my boyfriend massaged my tired feet. Sometimes, for fun, he bought nail polish and painted my toenails red. It felt sexy and intimate having him do that, and whenever I glanced down at those red toenails, I was reminded that someone loved me. But it didn’t occur to me to actually plop myself down in a salon chair and have a professional pedicure. In fact, deep down, that part of me that was still a blue-collar girl from a working- class family thought such a thing was a waste of money and time.
It’s funny what we hold on to from our childhoods, from the people we used to be. Surely I had obtained expensive habits: golden highlights in my hair, eyelashes dyed every six weeks, facials, and all those luxurious wraps and massages and rubs. But my hands and feet, the parts of me that worked, wore their labor, as if I needed to somehow say, “See? I’m still that girl!” Mostly, though, as I got older, I worked very hard not to be that girl. I managed to eliminate my New England accent, which wasn’t the almost British-sounding, Kennedy-esque one, but one with a harsher assault on R’s. I developed a taste for good wine and good food, for flying first class, for finer things. For my wedding, I even let a girlfriend give me a French manicure, sweeping clear polish over my stubby nails and tipping them in white. Still, every time I glanced down at those painted nails, they seemed to belong to someone else, not to me—or what I knew to be the real me, perhaps. Before I got on the plane to my Caribbean-island honeymoon, I removed the polish.
One year, for reasons I still can’t understand, I gave my mother a day at a spa for her birthday. Maybe I wanted to show her how far I’d come? Or maybe I simply wanted to pamper her? My mother had quit school when she was 16, after her father died, and worked in a series of factories—one that made artificial flowers, another that made luggage, the novelty-candy factory. Eventually she quit those jobs and worked as an Italian translator at the IRS office in Providence, which led to her becoming a tax preparer and then a tax auditor. Nowadays she wore pretty wool suits to work. She carried a briefcase. Still, she never felt comfortable in an office job, as if she were an imposter there. She deserved to be pampered, to have her skin exfoliated and softened, to have ballet pink fingernails and maybe daring burgundy toenails.
When she saw the gift certificate, she looked confused. And by the time we reached the spa, she looked downright angry. “Relax,” I told her. “You’re going to love it.”
Reluctantly, she let the receptionist lead her to her treatment room for a facial, a massage, and, yes, a mani-pedi. It was a half-day visit, so I settled in with a book, smiling.
Only minutes after she’d disappeared, my mother reappeared, crying.
“Get me out of here,” she said. “Take me home.”
The baffled receptionist tried to get her to stay. But there was no keeping my mother in that spa. She didn’t just walk out—she fled.
“That’s not who I am,” she told me in the car. “I’m not that person.”
Like me, my mother could not really shed her roots. No amount of lotion or polish could change that.
Yet here I was, on a cruise ship, my feet soaking in scented water, about to have my first pedicure.
As Latoya filed and oiled my toenails, she asked me why. Why, if I’ve had every other spa treatment, haven’t I had a pedicure or a manicure?
I just shrugged, but I finally did understand why. As much as I had left my blue-collar, working-class roots behind, I still stubbornly—even proudly—couldn’t let go of them. In fact, I didn’t really want to. My bare, sometimes broken, nails had become a kind of symbol of where I’d come from and who I was deep down. But all these years later, I realized I could let go of that notion. With or without painted nails, I was still that little girl from that Italian-American family, and all that came later, too.
I looked out at the blue, blue water, at the silvery sunlight sparkling on it. This was the same ocean I had grown up swimming in, I thought. But it didn’t look like this up north. There, it was darker, grayer, wilder. My mother had summers off from that candy factory, and every day she’d drive us to the state beach 30 minutes away. While she and my aunt sat in plastic beach chairs smoking Pall Malls, my cousins and I swam, riding waves like they might take us somewhere.
“Now look how pretty you are,” Latoya said, holding my softened feet up for me to see. There, shiny and blue as the ocean in front of me, were my toenails. They were, I admit, gorgeous. So gorgeous that I took a picture of them in that pink sand.
“Come back later,” Latoya said, “for a manicure.”
I looked down at my uneven fingernails, none of them the same length or shape, and smiled.
“Maybe another time,” I said, and I headed down the stairs to the casino to meet my mother.
I found her, a cigarette dangling between her lips, her eyes shining at the sight of me. She handed me a $20 bill and directed me to the slot machine beside her. But I didn’t insert it right away. Instead, I watched as her beautiful hand grabbed hold of the lever and pulled it down. I took hold of her other one, pressing her calloused palm against mine and holding on tight.
About the author Ann Hood is the author of 13 novels, two memoirs, a short-story collection, and an anthology about knitting. Her most recent novel is An Italian Wife ($12, amazon.com).