Red. They were always red.
But not just any red. Mom's nails were postwar red. A red as moist as Marilyn Monroe's flirty pout. A red with the durability of a fade resistant, waterproof, glossy Earl Shieb auto paint job. That positive, all-things-are-possible-red that clung to wagons, bicycles, balls, and swings in the 1950s.
Some women abhor the thought of looking down and one day seeing their mother's hands attached to their own wrists. Not me. My mother's hands were beautiful. So beautiful, she worked briefly as a hand model at Chicago's Wilding Picture Productions where her primary job was as a script girl. Those are her hands in the photo above, circa 1946. (long before I arrived).
I have my mother's hands. Her deep nail beds that nail techs comment on when I take the time to get my nails done. Today, they’re painted sky blue. No chip.
My mother never would have chosen that color. Or paid anyone to paint her nails; she was too frugal for that. She did her own, usually just before going out to dinner or a neighborhood party. I remember the scent of nail varnish hanging in the kitchen air, long after she'd gone. She tucked the nail bottle on the window sill over the sink, probably to keep me from pilfering it. I wouldn't have, of course, because the color she favored never interested me. Mom had this edict: blondes wear blue, brunettes wear red. I wore lots of red as a kid, not by choice.
Born on a farm in Winterset, Iowa, Mom graduated from business school in Chillicothe, Missouri. After graduation, she went back home. But not for long. Armed with the skills to become an executive secretary, she decided to head to Chicago. At the train station in Des Moines, her father reached down and pulled out some extra cash -- from his shoes. She loved telling that story, how it both mortified and touched her. A fashionable tomboy, she was the boy my grandfather never had. It was as hard for her to leave as it was for him to see her go.
Once in Chicago, Mom found a roommate in the newspaper and took a job with the War Department. Lived in a charming walkup apartment. Bought a Zebra striped lamp. Danced at the Green Mill. Dated soldiers and sailors. Went to the beach, which I find amusing. Mom was terrified of the water, having never learned to swim.
Shortly before the end of WWII, Mom quit her job at the War Department and got a job at Wilding Pictures Productions (Wilding Studios), located in the building that was originally the home of Essanay Studios. Wilding produced industrial and training films and shorts, like this 27-minute classic called Midwest Holiday: a 1950s love story wrapped inside a travelogue through the Midwest. Promoting Midwestern values and vacation road trips, the film was sponsored by Standard Oil. The studio also worked with the Navy to produce training films. My father, a Navy photographer during the war, met Mom when their professional paths crossed at Wilding.
My mother's brief career as a hand model and script girl ended when she married my father. I'm guessing she left Wilding when she was about six months pregnant with me, according to the date of this letter. An exit that must have been tough. Tougher than I ever realized.
Working for Wilding wasn't just a coveted job, it was a cool job. As a member of that select company, Mom made friends that lasted a lifetime. She met movie stars of the day, like Sky King (Kirby Grant), who had a television show in the 1950s.
Long after Mom died, I found this in a box of her memorabilia. It's a going away party invitation for one of her Wilding coworkers. Mom had a hand in organizing the event. The invitation is done like a film script.
I find myself wondering if they did that for her, too. I'd like to think they did. And I'd like to think that memory is just one Wilding memory that went through her head when she plunged her beautiful hands into sinks full of dirty dishes. Folded laundry. Changed diapers. Weeded gardens. Bathed me and my siblings. Drove us to music lessons.
Mom died in 1982, when my children were still babies. She was just 59. I was 30.
I still miss her, especially on Mother's Day.
The last time I had my nails done, the shop's Asian owner was bemoaning the fact that Mother's Day was approaching. "So many come to do their nails. Mothers and daughters together. Will be very, very busy."
I never had that experience with my mother. Never will.
But after the Mother's Day rush, I'm going to book an appointment. Take off my sky blue nail polish.
Paint my nails red.
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