Creative Nonfiction by Meredith McCarroll

Box turtles lived in the woods above our house. Our dog, Alphie, roamed the neighborhood and returned home covered in spurs, with muddy paws and snout, with bloated ticks standing on end. Alphie carried these turtles to the front door and dropped them gently for us to see.

Mom found them, carried them to the yard and called my brother and me to come look. We fed them and returned them to the woods. The next day, a turtle on the porch. Wondering if there were dozens of turtles or just this one poor turtle, Mom painted one small line on the back of his shell with her fingernail polish. “This way,” she explained, as I watched her blow on the back of the turtle like she blew on her wet fingernails, “we can tell if this is one of Alphie’s turtles.”

Mom always painted her fingernails. She wore gloves when she gardened and had hand lotion in every drawer, glove compartment, and pocketbook. She stored her fingernail polish in the cabinet behind the bathroom door. Almost an entire shelf of fingernail polish, arranged in neat rows. I’d drag a stool into the bathroom and peer up into the cabinet, looking at these rows as if they were not all slight variations on a dark mauve. As if I might find a surprising bright red, or a pale pink. It was all, always, dark mauve.

This dark mauve was the color on the shell of the turtle that Alphie brought to us again and again. One turtle, which we started marking anew with each involuntary visit to our porch, until he was covered with tiny stripes the stars on a football player helmet or a prisoner’s tear mark tattoos.

Her last birthday was spent in a rehab center, fighting the flu while recovering from heart surgery. My friend Elizabeth came to visit her. To help me. I was fixated on quantifiable numbers–her blood pressure and iron levels, trying not to face how sick she truly was. After we left Mom to rest one afternoon, we returned to the house where I’d grown up. Elizabeth went straight to the bathroom and opened the cabinet behind the door. She picked out one of the bottles among many of the same, and grabbed a file and buffer.

When we returned, she reached down for Mom’s hand. Sick as Mom was, she reached her hand up and lifted one finger at a time.

After she died, I determined I would clean out the cabinet behind the bathroom door. Marking items off lists a roadmap through grief. I nonchalantly walked into the bathroom with a large black garbage bag. Looking across this shelf of fingernail polish, I wondered what made her always buy the same color—and feel like it was different somehow than the one she’d bought two months earlier.

I saw the dozen bottles of perfume, next to the polish, and remembered how it smelled to borrow one of her sweaters when I was in middle school. I’d pull it over my head and breathe in my mom. I’d carry her with me all day, her combination of Mink hairspray and Jergens lotion and Liz Claiborne perfume mixed with the musty/cedar smell of her sweater. With a breath, I reached up and started swiping the polish bottles into a trash bag.

Suddenly, I am 5. Standing on a stool, with Mom’s hand lifting up bottle after bottle of the same polish for me to choose. She patiently lifts dozens of bottles until I pick just the right one. Her hands lift me from under my arms and set me back on the ground so we can head to the kitchen for my manicure.

My knees buckle. The trash bag sits in my lap. My head hangs and I let go of some of what I’d been holding.

A lifetime of standing in the aisle at Revco, shaking bottles and holding them up to the light, ends in a bag bound for the landfill, carried by a grieving daughter who wants her mama to paint her fingernails every day forever.

One fall day after elementary school, Mom and I head to the woods to work on our ever-growing leaf collection. I reach down for a yellowed sycamore leaf, and the turtle shell catches my eye—the dark mauve paint marks on his back. I gently pick up our turtle friend. But he is gone. It is an empty shell.

Mom and I look around, like we might find the turtle body somehow resting just outside his shell. I hand the shell to Mom. She turns it upside down. She peers inside. She looks at me. We are quiet.

“Let’s bring him home,” she says, and she reaches back for my hand as she starts to walk.

<strong>Meredith McCarroll</strong>
Meredith McCarroll

was born and raised in Western North Carolina. She is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (Georgia) and co-editor of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Bitter Southerner, Avidly, Still, Looking at Appalachia, The Guardian, CNN. She teaches at Bowdoin College in Maine.

3 responses to “Polish”

  1. What a memorable and beautiful piece. I am so happy I came upon it. The images and scents, the emotions, will stay. Thank you. Just gorgeous.

  2. I stumbled upon this after looking at Wayne White’s Instagram page. Not sure how, but I am grateful. What a superb piece of writing. Absolutely lovely and the definition of “bittersweet”. Thank you!