painted toenails

A while back I painted Tess's toenails for the first time. I know she is just a baby but I couldn't resist those little pink piggies. As soon as I set her and her new pink toes down on the ground she literally pranced around, beaming, and just stared at her sassy new toes. At 15 months old she already seemed to know what a fresh coat of paint can do for a girl!

Many sprink breaks ago, the kind before kids, I went to Atlanta. I had a friend there doing some inner city mission work and I wanted to have my own pretend mission trip to the week. I played with kids after school. I filed paperworked. I painted a house. I ate some really good food. Stayed up late talking. And on Thursday I went to a Womens Shelter and met a women named Constance. She went every Thursday and told her story and then painted toes. And it may have been the best thing I did all week. Here is what I remember about that day.

Constance met me at the car. She was a fiftyish black woman who was dressed simply and elegantly. I suddenly felt a bit underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt.
On the ride to the shelter she breifed me on what to expect. The kinds of people I would see. What to do if someone asked me for money.
I was pretty nervous about what to do when I got there.
How to engage these women in conversation.
How to love on them without acting like I felt sorry for them.

The inside of the facility is really nice and it is kind of hard to tell the difference between the women working there and the ones staying there.
I am not ready to see all the kids.
And they break my heart.
They are cute and clean and missing front teeth and playing and totally normal.
And homeless.
The women are talking in groups, listening to their cd players, picking out clothes for interviews and playing cards until Constance began to talk and sing.
and then some of the women begin to listen.
Others just carry on their conversations louder and crank up their music.
But the crowd starts to grow and a few people began to notice the tubs of nailpolish sticking out from under the table.
Constance finishs up her story and you can tell a few women are really getting it. Because you see she had been here. In their very shoes. With sore and tired feet.

And then it is my turn. I am supposed to give pedicures to anyone who wants one.
I have a small plastic tub to soak tired feet in, some lotion and about a dozen assorted colors.
Alice. A six year old with thick braids and a toothless grin is my first customer. She wants each nail a different color and I oblige while a line grows.
Before Alice I don't think I had ever painted anyones toenails before...except mine and I am really bad at it. Spots of pink end up on skin in addition to nails, but no one seems to complain.
After Alice, I do about a dozen or so grown up feet.
and they are really gross.
They smell and are rough and knobby and yellowed and aching.
Just like these women and so I smile while I lotion and rub them.
But I have to try and not think about it and breathe through my nose because these feet are so bad from living on the streets in the same pair of socks day after day.
As I soak and rub I wonder what the apostles feet must have looked and smelled like.
And I paint toe after toe and wish that I was better at it. Becuase these women deserve something good. I take my time and try and paint a little love and warmth and encouragement into each toe.

I know that painting toenails wasn't a very practical service. I wasn't feeding or clothing or training these battered and bruised women. But Constance was on to something. For at least a few minutes that day these women got to feel normal instead of afraid. And hopefully after we left they felt a little bit prettier and ready to take on the day with a fresh coat of nail polish and a clean pair of socks. Because sometimes, that's really all a girl needs.


Ann Kroeker said...

Your story is so powerful, so humbling, so beautiful.

Several years ago, I visited a nursing home once a week and that was the task they gave me to do: paint fingernails.

The ladies would roll into the activity room in their wheelchairs and wait in line to get their polish.

And some of them were very stinky.

So I breathed shallowly and smiled a lot. Like you, my manicures were imperfect. But they didn't care. Like those ladies and kids you served, they just wanted to feel special and look down at their hands and see that bright pink or bright red.

Maybe, too, they needed to feel the human touch.

Ann Kroeker said...

I wanted to mention how glad I am to find you through the HighCallingBlogs network. Welcome!

Sarah said...

This post was the impetus for a very good thing that happened this weekend, namely a makeover for my sister. So thanks!

Margie said...

Michelle, this is a powerful post. One that will stick with me a while. I remember an old classmate going to India with the ideal of working with Mother Teresa's group, and then not being able to handle cutting the toenails of the sick and dying.

This also reminds me of the scene in Same Kind of Different as Me when the women in the shelter are given makeovers, and then began to see themselves in new ways.

I'm chewing on this...