We walk in and a woman tells us to pick a color. I’m drawn to the blues. They seem whimsical and youthful and impractical. But it’s getting warmer, and I should stick with what everyone does this time of year: I’ll choose a pretty and predictable pink. She’s looking at the pinks too.
It’s the beginning of summer, and I wanted to make this outing a Thing. Our Thing. A memory to look forward to and back on. “What color are you thinking about?” I ask.
She reaches for a deep magenta, a shade that looks like tequila and dancing at midnight with arms around your man’s neck and your head thrown back in laughter. My first instinct is to say, “Um, isn’t that a bit bold?” and my gut knows it’s too adult of a color for her. But she’s not swaying under lights strung up on outdoor patios after tables have been moved to the side. She’s wearing a swim team T-shirt and flip-flops, picking a color to put on her ten-year-old toes for our first mother-daughter pedicure.
I never once had my nails painted with my mom, let alone by my mom. She wouldn’t have said it was a sin exactly; she just walked a perfectly straight line where discouragement and encouragement met. If anything, she’d lose her balance and right herself on the discouragement side: It’s not what we do. What will people think? Just, please, take it off for church. It’s worldly.
That’s the word that kept us, me separate. We are in the world but not of it. And the outward appearance is where this distinction can be made the clearest (and easiest).
I was around five the first time I realized painting your nails was an issue. I was going to a luau with my aunt, who no longer attended the church her family grew up in, and I remember she asked my parents if she could paint my nails for the party. I remember wanting fire-engine red on my miniature seashell nails so badly, but absorbing the idea that “it’s not what we do” (quote = in italics). I don’t really remember if my aunt painted my nails or not. But come Sunday morning, I know I went to church without nail polish of any kind.
I’m looking at the magenta bottle in my daughter’s hand, but all I can see are memories.
Like the girl I knew whose family did think painting your nails was a sin. They’d had no need to discourage the behavior because, well, it wasn’t even an option. We don’t do that. So one Sunday morning when her parents noticed a clear coat of polish on her nails (and because one wouldn’t have nail polish remover since there would never be a need for it), she was told to pick it off, with the very fingernails she painted, before going to church.
I want to tell my daughter how, as a teen, I was questioned by a church leader who once noticed my red toenails. I was a rebel who had the stomach for only so much trouble, so I usually wore closed-toed shoes, even during the summer, to hide them. But he saw them one day and asked why my toenails were painted. I gave a ridiculous and overtly obtuse excuse that had to do with seeing my feet better while doing flip-turns during swimming. My times are faster if I do quick turns.
He didn’t tell me to take it off. And I don’t know if he ever talked with my parents. But I felt it. The hot flame of his disappointment; disappointment that I wasn’t compliant; that I chose to disobey. Maybe that I was sinning, I don’t know. For sure, though, I felt his sadness that I was defiant to the traditions of the church. Maybe he knew I was essentially lying. I couldn’t just own it and say, “My toenails are red because I like it” nor tell the most honest truth, “I think this doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things and I’d paint my fingernails red, too, if I knew it wouldn’t cause so much trouble for my parents or myself.”
I was measured by what I looked like, not by what was in my heart.
I want to tell my daughter, I grew up with so many loving people who made decisions about their appearance that I just didn’t and couldn’t understand when I was young. How hard it was for me to reconcile what I saw in my church with what Christian friends and family outside of our church looked like. How I had such difficulty grasping why wearing or not wearing something would make you more (most?) acceptable in God’s eyes. And I want to tell her how my love for them remains, but in our immediate family we live out being separate from the world in a different way than the way I grew up.
Right in the middle of the acetone and fake fireplace and UV lights I want to tell her God wants her mind, her heart, her actions, her love to reflect Jesus. That freedom has set her free.
I want to tell her she doesn’t have to look the part—she is set apart.
Yes, I also want to tell her sexy magenta isn’t really an appropriate color for her age. That I hope she knows how good she has it. That I never did this with my mom, and how she should be grateful not to live under the same rules I did. If I’m not able to balance on the line of discouragement and encouragement when it comes to superficial preferences, I’m choosing to steady myself on the side of encouragement.
So I say nothing except, “Wow. That’s really pretty.” And she smiles, pleased with her choice.
With her smile, something in me settles. I turn to the left, back to the blues, and pick out a creamy color you’d want to see after opening your bedroom curtains following a series of rainy days. It’s the season for pink, but I’m not bound by inconsequential expectations.
She compliments my decision and it’s official.
We’ve just started a new tradition.