Each time she visited me in boarding school, apart from reaching out with a hug, she had the following things to say to me:
- You’ve lost so much weight (and not as a compliment)
- Stop fidgeting with your hair
- Don’t bite your nails
I didn’t care much for the first sentence. It was purely rhetorical – seeing after a gap of a few months et al. The last two sentences usually fell on deaf ears. I never understood why those two actions infuriated her as much as they did. My hair, I will fidget with it all day if I like. And the finger nails, how was one to resist them? There was something very delightful in biting the nails from the tip of the finger, making your way to the other end of the nail, marveling at the length.
Even more irresistible was the skin around the nails. I got some perverse pleasure in being able to peel off the skin, without drawing any blood. Ma would always caution, “You know, nobody will marry you with such fingers!” I’d dismiss her words with a careless shrug of the hand, “That nobody can go to hell if he chooses to judge me on the basis of my fingernails. His loss!”
To her credit, she never threatened to apply chilly powder, shoe polish, etc. on my fingers. She only reprimanded me. Often. Occasionally, amidst company, hoping that would break the straw. But perhaps, it slipped her mind that obstinacy is one of my stronger traits.
I was an angry, rebellious and angsty teenager then. Today, on the other side of twenty-five, I take great care of my finger nails. Regular trimming, some filing and even an annual manicure. The narcissist in me is thrilled when someone points to my nails asking if I’ve had them filed and shaped. I wish I could take him/her home to the mother each time I heard that.
Last week, a teenager cousin complimented me in all sincerity, “Di, I love your nails. How do you maintain them? I keep biting mine.” Opportunely, Ma was around. I confessed, “There was a time, I was just like you. Biting and chewing. But then, I just let them be. I outgrew the fun of chewing them, I suppose.” Her mother quipped, “I was waiting for the big ‘but’, which never came.”
Yes, I don’t have a dramatic story of when and how I stopped being obsessed with my nails. But I did. I’ve come to adore long nails and now it is heartbreaking each time I have to trim them. The fact that someone casually informed me that the state of your nails reveal the state of your health might have had a little something to do with it.
But the playing with the hair bit panned out differently. By and by, I grew a little conscious and particular. I was also a little alarmed with how much hair I was losing by continually fidgeting with them. I was afraid I’d go bald. Therefore, I tried my hardest to resist.
School made way for college and, eventually, the workplace. On first meetings, I always observe what people do with their hands. And I’ve learnt that it is usually difficult to have a serious conversation with folks who either bite their nails or reach out to touch their hair. It is way too distracting.
And I remember Ma’s words each time this happens.
Today, I still fidget with my hair. When I’m nervous, a little worked up or sometimes, just bored. I’d like to believe that it’s usually when I’m alone but no. I’m sure colleagues will testify that I often start fidgeting when I get too involved with the words on the screen at work. The mother will also have a similar observation when she sees me poring over a book in bed.
It’s almost as if the fidgetiness helps me concentrate. But Ma, I finally get what you were trying to tell me each time you corrected me. I’m sorry I brushed you aside and laughed at your concerns then.