The Winter Of My Lee Press-On Nails

What makes a little girl want grown-up beauty products? I remember.

The winter before I turned 9, my mother endured emergency cervical spine surgery — a “slipped disc” that I will forever blame on the houses she cleaned to support our tiny family of two, and which probably explains my intense lifelong aversion to all forms of housework. It was a dramatic event in our lives (more so for her, I am sure). A surgeon landed in a helicopter on the hospital roof! Then, like a magician, he removed a sliver of my mother’s hip bone and placed it in her neck. She still has the scar across her throat. Inside her recovery room, I was surprised when my mom casually referred to the vast reaches of outer space she saw instead of the hospital-room room wall, courtesy, I know now, of the morphine in her veins. Outside, a torrential downpour — Sonoma County was under water from an especially bad flood season. (It used to rain nonstop from January through March, as my mom now likes to declare ruefully, summoning up visions of the droughts and fires she now expects yearly.)

Without surgery that day, we were told, my 31-year-old mother would likely have been paralyzed. The emergency room doctor who’d sent her home earlier that week, cruelly dismissing her pain as imaginary (or, I wonder now, as a bid for narcotics), looms large in my imagination, a disdainful villain. Her suffering was intense, the recuperation long.

All of this, obviously, made a huge impression on me. In memory, the entire episode feels monumental, Biblical. The flood, the villain, the magician, the slice of bone, the mystical portal to outer space. And somehow, when I look back on this time in our lives through an 8-year-old’s eyes, there is nothing more miraculous — more memorable! — than the appearance, courtesy of my mom’s good friend Pam who flew from Long Island to help us out post-surgery, of my very own set of Lee Press-On Nails.

This haircut seemed much cooler in my mind, and took a very long time to grow out.The author

How to explain to you the hold those nails had on my young psyche? How they represented to me the absolute epitome of glamour? I coveted them dearly, and receiving them felt like a genie had granted me a wish.

I was reminded of all this recently when I noticed a flurry of social media dismay around the apparent trend of tween girls putting skincare products on their Christmas wish-lists. I get it, I do! Why does a perfect, small child “need” an expensive moisturizer, or a high-end lip oil, or any kind of serum? She doesn’t, of course! My mother — dazed as she surely was from the shock and expense of her ordeal — must have looked at me, clutching that box of fake nails, and thought she does not need any of this.

While my mom was definitely a Diane Keaton, it was Dolly Parton whom I idolized.

Certainly, this desire for long painted nails and poofy, curly hair, and makeup — for glamour of any kind! — did not come from her, a true hippie prototype. I knew her to be beautiful but bafflingly immune to the siren calls I heard clearly from the cosmetics aisle at Tuttle Drug. She wore long, handmade skirts (uncool) or jeans from Goodwill (uncool and embarrassing) with Dr. Scholl’s sandals (unspeakably uncool); she shopped for organic chard at the weirdo health food store way before Erewhon was even a sparkle in an influencer’s mother’s eye and put sprouts that she grew in jars in the house in my school lunch sandwiches. Her makeup supply consisted of a small pot of cream blush (“I’m so pale, people think I’m sick if I don’t wear it!”), a squeezed-out tube of Dr. Hauschka’s rose cream, and a bottle of L’Air du Temps that lasted my entire childhood. In the mid-1980s, this was not the thing, as far as my discerning little eye could tell.

I’m not even sure how I knew about Lee Press-On Nails. Certainly none of the other little girls in the third grade at Valley Vista Elementary wore them to school. Probably from magazines, which I devoured indiscriminately, and probably also, despite my mom’s best efforts, from TV commercials. At our house, as you can guess, we never had cable. Mom, who famously was not allowed to wear pants or take shop class at Redwood High School, was determined to protect me from the gross sexism she saw rampant in the media — especially in the advertisements — but I did get an occasional fix of the boob-tube in at my grandma’s house. I also recall seeing an awful lot of movies with my mother, both in the theater and on the VCR we’d rent at the video store along with our choice of entertainment. Goldie Hawn featured strongly in the mix, as did Molly Ringwald, and we both loved Annie Hall and 9 to 5. While my mom was definitely a Diane Keaton, it was Dolly Parton whom I idolized.

And it was Lee Press-On Nails that I coveted.

My mom in her brace and an outfit that I probably did not hate!The author

Today, decades on, I viscerally recall my joy at seeing the package emerge from Pam’s suitcase in a cloud of Virginia Slim’s menthol; the absolute unbridled glee with which I applied each shiny talon to my small hands. I’m sure they must have been a little large for my fingers, but I have no memory of being disappointed. They did not, in any way, fail to live up to my imagination. They were glorious, and for a couple of days, in the middle of a very strange, disorienting, and scary time, they made me feel like the Very Glam Lady I knew I truly was.

I think of those nails when people cluck about the “good old days of toy catalogs!” Hmm, I think, recalling the tight budget that pervaded every Christmas of my childhood; remembering the yearning I had one year for a Snoopy Snow Cone Machine (age 6) that was no more intense than the yearning I had at 11 for a pair of Jordache jeans.

“Kids should be kids!” they cry.

Well, yes, I think, remembering my own battles when my tween daughter wanted to wear lipstick to the grocery store, then a crop top to high school, the convoluted tussling with the ideas of body positivity and autonomy and feminism and what “appropriate” even means.

This desire for an early taste of glamorous womanhood is surely as old as any Christmas toy craze. I know it because I can still see my almost 9-year-old self sitting at the kitchen table. It’s still drizzling, but we are safe inside, the hospital already receding with the floodwaters. Pam, who, it strikes me now, is the fairy godmother of this story, is making us something to eat (thankfully, I am sure, something that does not involve tofu), and getting my mom to laugh by recapping the latest season of General Hospital in her thick Queens accent. I see my mom ensconced on the couch, as comfortable as she can be wearing a brace that completely immobilizes her neck and chin. But I am not thinking about the villain, the flood, the sliver of bone, the magician, the close call. I am simply admiring my long and perfect plastic nails.