When my daughter was little, she loved having her nails painted all different colours.
She still does, although these days she does them herself, and her hair goes through a revolving rainbow of colours too.
I used to paint her nails for her, though I wasn’t very good at it. Manicures aren’t in my talent set – I’m better at getting the nail polish on her fingers and my clothes than where it’s supposed to be. But at the same time, I loved doing it for her – it’s one of those many precious, intimate moments of parenthood, like an active synonym for connection, a metaphor for love.
And it’s one of those moments I knew should be in a poem.
I wrote this poem last year, in response to a National Poetry Day challenge – five random words and twenty-four hours to write a poem. I can’t remember what the original five words were – curtains might have been one. The poem has been through several edits – or manicures! – since then. But I know the words made me think about dementia, and what is left when the memories are gone. Painting my daughter’s nails seemed like the perfect image to build this poem from.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Pohutukawa red, please
A milky skim of glaucoma curtains
your eyes, but blindness isn’t why
you’ve started to lasso me with the name
of the girl who used to do your nails.
You offer me a corrugated hand.
Pohutukawa red today please, Marie.
I moisturise your paper skin.
I trim and shape, file and buff and polish.
You tell Marie-me you used to do the same
for your daughter when she was young,
painting a different colour
on every nail.
those rainbows on my fingers and toes
the smell of Revlon
my small hand clasped like a gift
in your large hand.
You say Marie-me should meet your daughter.
She’s my apple.
She makes my heart sing.
You tell me again how you loved
painting your daughter’s nails
when she was young.
Your age-shrunk hand rests like a gift
in my large hand.
I can’t manicure your mind, I can’t buff
and polish your neural pathways.
But I can give you rainbows on fingers and toes.
Blue for our eyes.
Green for apples, yellow for sunshine.
Pohutukawa red. Red for blood,
red for the love that still binds us.
And losing my name doesn’t matter
when this is what you remember.
This poem was first published as Painting your Nails,
in Stay Well Here, New Zealand Poetry Society Poetry Anthology 2020