grandma tougher than nails
My grandma is the type of person who holds both your hands as she talks to you. She speaks softly, with the only German accent I’ve ever found non-threatening, it actually approaches endearing charm. And so I didn’t pull away when she held mine and said, “Your hands look terrible. Are you still biting your nails?,” her tone as inquisitive as it was disgusted.
I’ve heard similar things from all sorts of people before, and they are most always correct.
It’s a gross, unattractive, unhygienic habit that I wish was easy to stop. But when you nibble away at your nails almost involuntarily, it’s tough to kick. Until my habit met my grandma, who is, appropriately, tougher than nails.
Before we go any further, let’s rewind. Not just a few years back to when the nibbling began. Let’s rewind nine decades. My grandma is 93 years-old, which qualifies her to do a lot of things, like giving unsolicited suggestions, making demands, and drawing that Venn diagram intersection between the two, where this story lives.
She was born in Austria, and as a young child lived through Kristallnacht. She fled Europe before things went from “destructive pogroms” to “full-blown Holocaust,” and immigrated to America for safety. My grandma learned English, made friends, established a new life, married an immigrant from Poland, started a family, and somehow developed an awesome sense of humor on the way. Most of her family were not as lucky, so many of these things, my grandma did without a safety net.
Enter me, with my privilege and my snark and my safety net and my badass grandma who made all of those things possible. My grandma, who was persecuted for her religion, and who, over the course of a century, set me up for a truly blessed life, hashtag not included. That irony is not lost on me.
My grandma loves the Mets, cheesecake, ping-pong, and my not-Jewish wife, a melting pot of things I’m guessing she didn’t forecast as part of her life when she was a young girl. She is hilarious, and I still can’t account for how much of it is intentional, which only makes me even more awestruck. Does she know she is a crack-up or is this a case of Old People Say the Darndest Things?
Strong and smart like Dorothy, selfless like Rose, bluntly honest like Sophia, and a social maven like Blanche. All that panache, concentrated into a 5-foot frame. She is the kind of grandma who lovingly tells my brother to lose weight, and just as I am thinking how happy I am to elude her acrimony, she tells me to gain it. She says everything with love, but when my grandma says jump, you realize you should have been jumping this whole time.
So at last year’s Thanksgiving, when my grandma told me to stop biting my nails, I knew my vice had just met its match. She made me promise her I’d kick the habit, so we set up a plan while I watched her make haste of two pieces of cheesecake.
Until she saw my fingernails again, my grandma was allowed to call me everyday and remind me to stop gnashing on them. She wouldn’t get a chance to see my nails for another five months since we live 400 miles apart, so this binding pact meant agreeing to a lot of phone calls with a nonagenarian.
Now, my grandma would impose that discipline, come hell or high phone bills (go ahead and try to explain anytime minutes to YOUR grandma).
Monday at work the phone rang, sending a wave of panic through my system. Could I really talk to my grandma about nail-biting in front of all my coworkers? This was not a conversation for an open office layout. I rushed to a quiet corner to answer the call and its subsequent firing squad of questions. No small talk and very few pleasantries, my grandma reached back and brought the heat.
Tuesday after dinner, another call, another round of inquisition. On Wednesday she caught me away from the phone and left me a sweet, grandmotherly voice mail inquiring how my week was going and hoping I wasn’t too busy. I knew what this was. That saccharine message wasn’t an olive branch, it was a thorny switch. A reminder. A challenge. I called her back and we ended up speaking at least 10 times in 14 days.
Sometimes our calls lasted just a minute, other times we stayed on the line much longer. The nails always came up first, but I was slowly learning that this was about stopping one thing as much as starting something else. My grandma told me how she loved bragging to her friends about how she got to call me everyday. I wondered how many of her conversations included my nails.
I guess I was kind of proud, too. To this day, on my phone there is a photo of my fingertips with 10 decent looking nails, dated December 21st. They were longer than they had been in decades but to most, remarkably unremarkable.
Like the exemplary grandson I am, I emailed the picture to my 93-year-old grandma and waited for the praise. Instead, she emailed me back to ask me to take another picture in better light. I wondered if this was cyberbullying, but complied.
My grandma wasn’t just proud. She beamed with the kind of pride that grandparents typically reserve for sports trophies, graduations, engagements, and when you tell them you got a raise at work. (Quick tangent. You now know a lot about my grandma, but here’s one more thing. She is always the first person I call when I get a raise. It makes her far happier than it does me. A few months ago, the annual raise call actually made her cry. She is a champion and my champion.)
My grandma raved about how proud she was while also making sure I knew that though this was a good start, I still had much more work to do. She was my knight in shining armor and then, immediately, Bobby Knight. That’s so grandma.
At Passover, in the end of April, I couldn’t wait to show off my nails. The phone calls had become far less frequent since she knew I was upholding my end of the agreement.
As I sat across from her, typing my fingers on the dinner table in front of her, nails striking the pads below them, she kept grabbing my hands and holding them between both of hers. She was so happy. If it hadn’t been for a salted caramel cheesecake to end the night, I am sure this would have been the highlight of her day, week, and month.
Now my grandma could go back to normal grandma concerns like when would she become a great-grandmother, didn’t I know she didn’t have lots of waiting time left? I anxiously giggled, deflectively reminded her she was the greatest grandma already, and then fought off all nervous energy to start chomping on my prized nails. I hoped this was a test that I overwhelmingly passed, but I knew, it wasn’t a test. It was Grandma.