We all have a memory from some time in our lives that has scarred us beyond words. Something so horrific, that the imagery, smells, tactile sensations, remain years after the event happens.
For my Husband it was a mammary accident, when as a boy he was asked to go and wake his Aunt from nap, as she rolled over, one of her massive flabby breasticles spilled out of her Moo Moo…to this day he cannot look at a large boobs without getting a bit queasy.
For me, it was The Toenail Incident.
My parents were insane, and at the beginning of summer 1974, with Great Grandmother, laying on her death-bed on the other side of Canada, it seemed a perfect time for a family road trip, with three kids all under 10 years of age. This was before my Dad invested in the VW Pop-Top Van, which would take us on many great adventures, and we all crammed into my Mother’s, 1965 Dodge Dart. Two adults who didn’t like each other, and three kids who liked each other even less.
Alberta to Ontario or bust.
I remember the prairies seem to go on forever. I also remember getting a few elbows in the face from my little brother, and a few whacks from my Mother when I gave him a few more elbows right back than he’d dished out. My sister delighted in tormenting me as well, because she was sitting behind my Dad and our Mother’s arm couldn’t reach her. The woman had an incredible reach, to nail me right upside the head from the front seat. It was usually me who got whacked, but honestly I don’t remember being that bad of a kid…
We did the usual sight-seeing along the way, and stopped at more than a few truck stops and Mickey Dee’s for food and piddle breaks. As I recall, everyone made a big fuss about my sister…”oh she’s so pretty”, “what beautiful hair…”, “Such a polite young girl…”. My brother was, “Adorable!”, and “Oh look at that little smile… he’s so cute and quiet!”
Then there was me. A barefoot, wild-looking, ginger-haired, freckled, Helion covered in three or so layers of dirt, mud and a variety of condiments and food particles, with a perpetually runny nose.
Anyway, so by the time we got to Ontario, we were all tired and pissy. We pulled into our Aunt’s backyard, set up the trailer tent and crashed. The next day we drove out to see the Great Grandmother.
I remember being forced to wash, put on clean clothes and instructed to,”leave your damn shoes on!” We drove for a while, before we arrived outside a small flat-roofed building, and pulled into a spot along the fence. I always had to sit behind my Mother, on the passenger side so she could hit me, when she felt I required a good whack. My sister had already gotten out on the driver’s side and nearly slammed the door on my head as I tried to worm out behind her, so I scooted back over and slid out of the car against the fence. Right into a mass of spiny thistles. Naturally, I had taken my shoes off and was now barefoot and angry, as I bulldozed my way crying and whining through all the thistles until I got to the walkway.
Now if my Mother had, had her way at that moment, I’m pretty sure she’d have suffocated me with that handkerchief she put over my face, instead of yelling “Blow your damn nose you look like an orphan!”, and muttering, “You had to take your shoes off…”
It was a really old-looking building, old square tiles on the floor, and a weird odor of rubber and bleach. Lots of nurses in white uniforms and little white hats, with drab cardigans. We walked down the hallway and into a room. There were a few other beds in there if I remember right, and we made our way over to one in particular.
There was a woman laying there with just a sheet draped over her middle half with her legs exposed. I just stood there frozen. She made a weird sound as she tried to move her mouth and her arm flailed as it reached out for me, there was spittle dipping out of her mouth and she grunted loudly…I felt a push from a hand behind me and I lost it.
I panicked. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with that woman but I wasn’t playing this game…I ran to the foot of the bed covered my face.
Now I had no idea that when I opened my eyes I was going to see something that would forever haunt me. Well into adulthood,the image of that “thing” would remain as fresh as the day I saw it.
The image of that gangly, gnarled and decidedly greyish yellow toenail…overgrown and thick as a tree branch…spiraled, lumpy and horribly huge. All of the toenails were like that. Attached to a skeletal foot with callouses and bunions as big as my fist.
I ran out of the room and wouldn’t go back. I had nightmares.
To this day, I can barely touch my own feet without gagging. Toenails must be short and trimmed and clean or I go a bit snaky. Feet are just gross anyway…
As an adult, of course I understand she’d had a stroke or five, and her motor skills were severely compromised. Her speech was virtually non-existent but she had her faculties about her. She knew who we were and why we were there. She got to see her Great Grand kids before she died and for her that was all that really mattered. I was too young and terrified to appreciate why we there. Too young to really comprehend that this woman was dying and this was her opportunity to say hello and goodbye.
The end of a wonderful woman, I never knew, and the beginning of a phobia.