My father’s hands were brown with dark blue veins. His left hand was darker than his right from years of smoking cigars out the window of a 1965 Mustang.
During synagogue services, we often played him a hard fist-making game. I tried to pry his fingers open one by one. Once all the fingers were freed, I drew letters on his palm and slipped his fingers along his veins, pretending I could move the blood to his wrists.His nails were always short and rounded. It was clean, polished and gleaming. This was due to my weekly professional manicure.
When I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was embarrassed by my dad’s weekly manicure. I found it strange that he would walk into what I thought was a women’s space and do women’s things. But by the time he got to college, he was bragging about his father’s peculiar rituals.To me, it said a lot about him. My father was a German Jew and his mother helped him escape the Holocaust. For him, clean nails (and a monogrammed shirt) were a sign of victory. Plus, he wanted them to feel better. He was an accountant who spent part of his day flipping through his W-2 and licking his fingers.
We are made up of details.How to hold a coffee mug, how to unhook a bra, how to pronounce jewelryAlzheimer’s began stripping me of my father’s details and replacing them with new obsessives like picking fluff out of my pants, sticking my tongue to one side of my mouth, and sadly biting my nails.
When he started biting I told him to stop. “Stop, Dad. You’ll hate it,” I said. I rubbed his hands with lavender lotion, hoping the smell and taste would deter him from chewing. Thinking the memory might discourage the habit, I asked him to tell me about his manicure.
For the last five years of his life, he lived in a locked wing nursing home for people with advanced dementia. This section of the facility was called Recollection. On my first tour, I told the manager, “Recollections is a strange name for a home for people with memory problems.” I’m not the first to say that, she said.
I loved arriving at Recollections dinner time. Eating allowed my father and I to do something together. The staff handed me a plate of what was served that evening. Fish fillet, meatloaf and marinara pasta. My father looked at me, smiled and shrugged. Once, he leaned over Meatloaf and announced, “This is all bullshit.” I agreed. It was all bullshit.
Sometimes I brought his favorite snack, tart Granny Smith apples. Before Dad sliced apples into precise semicircles, he always peeled them. He always used the same small paring knife and peeled one piece before putting it around my neck like a necklace.
I tried to imitate his technique at the nursing home, but it didn’t work. Towards the end, as he stares at me with cloudy eyes even after he has stopped eating, I rub a slice of apple along his lower lip. For this moment he came alive.
Last night was a full moon, so I did what I usually do. I went outside and talked to my father. This habit started shortly after he passed away, so I’ve been talking to Moon for nearly a decade. He liked interacting with strangers. I imagine him walking around in the dark, smoking cigars, asking people what they do for a living. You can pretend to have a manicurist on the moon and still touch your fingers to keep them clean.
Rebecca Handler Writer based in San Francisco. Rebecca’s story has been published in several anthologies and has won awards. one woman party. Edie Richter is not aloneHer debut novel, , will be published in March 2021, won the Kirkus Starred Review, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.A paperback book has recently been published and is now available for purchase. hereA recent McDowell Fellow, Rebecca is writing her second novel. She also wrote about her cancer diagnosis for Cup of Jo.
PS For more on grief, see how Amy Bloom helped her husband through her own words, how to write a condolence letter, Joanna visits her grandmother with dementia, and more.
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