Revisiting a Childhood Lesson


No matter where you are in life, you learned a lot to get there. The majority of things we carry around inside our heads we likely don’t even know the source of. Some of it is simply trivia, some of it is fascinating facts and others are things we taught ourselves while not even trying. There are yet other times where we remember exactly when and how we learned a valuable life lesson, this story is about one of those times.

I am the only daughter of an only daughter. Both my mother and I grew up with two older brothers. My grandparents were Irish immigrants who had some strong opinions about American teen culture in the 1950’s when my mother was in high school. Their daughter was not the kind of girl who wore red lipstick and knotted her pearls! Except that she was, she just did not leave the house that way or return home that way. These contraband items were carried to and from West High School in the bottom of her purse where prior to the start of class each morning a quick trip to the bathroom transformed her from “immigrant daughter” to “American teenager”. She was part of a high school sorority (the Bachelorettes) and dated her older brother’s best friend who would eventually become my father.

By the time I knew my mother in the 1960’s her makeup repertoire consisted of lipstick, 95% of which was blotted off with a quick snap of the jaw while a folded tissue was inserted between the lips. These tissues were then carried in her purse where later a corner could be moistened with a cleaning fluid known as “Mom’s Saliva” that removed traces of dirt or food from a child’s face. She also owned “rouge” (which is universally known as blush by later generations) which was worn only on occasions that required the use of Chanel No. 5 which came in a square black bottle that was never to be touched and should have been stored at Fort Knox due to its value per ounce. The one other item that was never to be touched was her bottle of nail polish. My mother had almond shaped finger nails that despite washing dishes and floors by hand were perfect with the simple maintenance of an emery board. The bottle of nail polish was for her feet during the summer months. That bottle of nail polish taught me a life lesson that my own children can recite by heart.

Our family of five shared one bathroom and that is where my mom kept her “make-up” in the second drawer to the right of the sink; rouge, a bottle of nail polish and the tubes of lipstick that were not in her purse. The Chanel No. 5 sat on a mirror on her dresser in the bedroom along with a silver comb and brush set that were not to be used. I was perhaps six or seven years old when I found myself in the bathroom, alone and tempted by the bottle of dark pink polish. I knew better than to apply any as that would be a dead giveaway that I had touched it, I just wanted to pull the brush out and drag it smoothly against the circular opening to remove the excess and get the precise amount for a perfect application. My mother had even painted my toes once or twice, so in addition to watching her paint her own toes I liked to think I had a fair amount of knowledge about nail polish. My other cosmetic experience was the use of rouge and lipstick for a dance recital where I and a group of other inexperienced first-grade tap dancers awkwardly paraded ourselves like little Broadway-bound harlots at the downtown Y. So there I was with the bottle of nail polish perched on the gold flecked Formica counter top and as I drew the brush up and out a thick and gooey droplet of the polish (I am certain this occurred in slow motion) escaped and plummeted as a perfect sphere of doom toward the light pink cotton looped bathroom rug. I gasped, fairly certain that my mother (who was smoking a Pall Mall Gold and paging through a magazine in the kitchen directly below where I was standing) would surely have heard it. After several seconds I carefully placed the brush back in the polish and returned it to the drawer and devised my next step.

Nail Polish Remover is the way to remove nail polish and I had watched my mother use it many times with a cotton ball (located in the tall bottom drawer to the right of the sink). These drawers for my entire life sounded like they needed oiling, it was probably done intentionally as an alarm system in the years before childproofing became a multimillion dollar industry. There I was with access to drain cleaner, bath-oil beads and every form of medication from Children’s aspirin to Rolaids (yep, we used to give aspirin to children) and yet in my mind I was most likely to die as the result of getting into my mother’s nail polish. What my plan had not accounted for is that a single drop of nail polish would discolor an area the size of a saucer if rubbed in a circle vigorously enough by a terrified child. I was certain the smell of the remover would likely linger in the air until my father returned home from work so I sprayed the golden can of Lysol directly onto the counter and used a Kleenex to artistically wipe it like I’d seen ladies do on Pledge commercials that broke up the monotony of As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives.

Now it was time to bring out the big guns! If I was not to touch the nail polish I certainly was not to be “playing with” the cuticle scissors (top drawer to the right of sink) but I knew that I was not “playing” I was like a Mayo Brother performing what for me might be a lifesaving procedure by cutting away the infected wound from the bathroom rug. It had not occurred to me that the circular bald patch would be stained and it was then I realized the rug was terminal. Like a T-shirt with an Orange Crush stain on the front, there was really only one thing to do. I wadded up the rug and tossed it in the hamper. That allowed me to temporarily breathe easier. My recollection of how I disposed of the pink loops from the rug or the used cotton ball have been erased from my memory, I assume it is some sort of Post Traumatic Stress defense mechanism.

Obviously I lived to tell the story and honestly don’t recall any harsh repercussions as a result. I sense that it was evident I had clearly suffered enough. Despite the entire initial episode taking about ten minutes, it is an experience from childhood that I have relived and shared frequently over the years. In retrospect, it might have been best to tell my mother of my initial indiscretion, taken my punishment and let her use her adult wisdom to resolve it. Knowing what I know now, it would have been best to let the polish dry and it likely could have been simply scraped off or removed with a single snip.

This story comes to mind every time I see a hit and run story or other news reports where if a person had simply owned their initial mistake they would prevent so many additional problems that result from following one mistake with multiple more. It was a great lesson to share with my kids at a young age to help prevent them from snowballing a situation that is easily resolvable into something that is irreparable.

I am uncertain if my grandparents ever discovered that their daughter wore knotted pearls and red lipstick to school. I am also not certain why my mother told me the story during my youth. I like to think that while it was not done as a permission slip to disobey that it was rather to let me know that there comes a time when we start to make our own choices and live with the repercussions of them.

Those who know me know that I nearly always wear my nails polished. Many assume that I have them done but actually for over 25 years nobody else has touched my nails. I paint them carefully while watching TV with my husband and I never spill a drop.


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