By Kristine Crane

January 27, 2020


My mother’s fingernails were sculpted and strong—not like salon nails, more like the backs of beetles. Every Saturday night she’d paint them for Mass the next day—usually deep red, her favorite color.

Her nails weren’t just beautiful. They were telling. If she tapped them against the steering wheel while driving, it meant she had something on her mind. She was a thinker, and passed that trait onto me, whom she called “my little intellectual.”

When my mother got cancer, and underwent chemotherapy, her nails fell off. Her medical report described “weeping feet,” which seemed like the drugs’ worst side effect, somehow even worse than the cancer itself. Christ’s stigmata came to mind.

Gradually, her nails grew back, but they were more brittle, and toward the end of her life, yellow, as if she’d dipped them in iodine.

A few days before my mother died, I sat on the edge of her bed and painted her nails. Her fingers relaxed into my palm, and I coated each nail twice with nude-colored polish. I tried not to think about the fact that I was readying my mother for her funeral.

Following Catholic tradition, we had an open casket. The prednisone had made my mother’s face puffy, and the embalming fluids gave her skin a strange glassiness. But we laced a sea-green rosary through her hands, which her older brother Jack said “were the only thing that looked like Barbara.”

Her nails shimmered, as if they were still alive.


Kristine Crane is a writer in Gainesville, Florida. She writes a bi-monthly column for "The American in Italia" Magazine, and teaches Italian and digital storytelling at the University of Florida. She is also a widely published journalist.

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