My Uncle Joe is what you call “a man’s man.” One of those cowboy types without the cows. Think Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County. You know, the artistic wandering type in a beat up truck. Hand rolled cigarettes. Leonard Cohen on the tape deck. Yeah, you got the picture.
In addition to being an accomplished artist, Uncle Joe is a brilliant man who always has an answer for everything. Want to know how a helicopter propeller works, or how to make gorilla noises, or why the soviets invaded Finland…just ask Uncle Joe. Get yourself a cup of coffee first because you’re going to be there a while. He has an answer and an anecdote for just about everything.
Back in the day, with no 9-5 desk job to pin him down, Uncle Joe would come and stay at our house for months at a time, usually arriving and leaving without any notice or fanfare. I loved his visits. Uncle Joe represented a whole world of creativity and imagination and thinking for yourself. He treated me like a grown up. Let me play with oil paint and power tools. Used curse terms like "ass" in my presence. My world was white bread suburbia; Uncle Joe brought pumpernickel from the city.
My favorite was when he would fetch me from school at the end of the day. Where I came from, school pickup was a daily parade where women would get gussied up in their finest jewel-toned 80’s track suits, hair teased halfway to Kentucky and pearl earrings shined up like headlights. Nowadays, I admire a woman who puts herself together, but this wasn’t about making themselves feel good it was about the race. It was about winning. To these women, raising children was a competitive sport and those jewel tone track suits and ratty hair were the uniform. I wouldn’t call them trophy wives, more just, spoiled. Hell, I was spoiled too, and even as a kid I knew something was off when 100 women got together and the only noise was the sound of snapping gum.
It’s just not right.
So there among the line of teal tracksuits and beige cars would be Uncle Joe in his beat up truck, dressed in paint stained rags, chewing tobacco, Bob Dylan on the stereo trying to drown the sound of the howling beagle running circles in the back of the truck bed, better known as my first baby child with fur: Dawg E. Dogg. The final bell would ring and I marched out to that truck pleased as punch. Kids would gawk and the moms would scowl, but I didn’t care, I loved it. It was different and by my standard, that meant it was better.
One day Tiffany Groundhog came up to me at lunchtime. We called Tiffany and her three siblings the Groundhogs because their last name started with a G and her mother’s finger nails were strikingly similar to this picture of a groundhog featured in the school’s series of animal alphabet posters. We later found out that the image in question was not a groundhog, but a wombat. To this day the poster still hangs in place and was never rectified or relabeled for fear of messing up the décor. This is a pretty good indicator of how the school operated in general: appearance before accuracy.
The Groundhogs lived nearby, and even though Tiffany and I were not exactly friends, we were close in age and comfortable enough in each other’s presence to ask for an occasional ride to dance class or Miss Patty’s napkin folding lessons. Yes, I said napkin folding class. No, I’m not joking.
On this day, Tiffany approached me next to the handball court and asked if she could tag along for a ride home. Apparently Mrs. Groundhog was home with the carpet cleaners and could not leave for even a moment, for fear they would steal her stem wear. Of course, I told Tiffany it would be no problem. I would not want her mother to risk being robbed by terrorist carpet cleaners with a penchant for Waterford crystal. I told her to meet me at the flag pole, “My Uncle is picking me up and you won’t recognize his car. We can walk over together.”
Mrs. G, as we called her, was a former model and beauty queen who prided herself on keeping her home and family pristine in appearance. Ironically, her home was a "model home" exclusively decorated in shades of white and cream. The building contractors thought it would encourage prospective buyers to see the home’s potential, while allowing them to project their own style and personality onto the space. Back in the pre-shabby-chic days, this was considered very avante gaurde, not to mention, totally impractical. Mrs. G loved the model home so much they bought it as is, white furniture and all. Once the Groundhogs moved in, Mrs. G had to employ at least three housekeepers just to keep up with it all.
Lesson: Four anxious children + white velvet couches is never a good idea. Frivolous as she was, I sort of admired Mrs. G. She appeared to have the perfect life and the perfect home. Everything I was bad at, or felt insecure about, Mrs. G had in spades. Her biggest problem was grass stains. Although I was too proud to admit it, I worshiped her from afar in hopes I could be like that one day.
Thank you Lord for letting me grow up and gain some common sense.
When her children’s pageant coach told her they needed piano lessons to “keep their edge”, Mrs. G went into a flurry. She bypassed the Casio keyboard and built an extension onto the front of their living room to accommodate a baby grand piano. White, of course. Every week at 4pm the piano teacher would come over for an hour of lesson time, 30 minutes of which would be spent clearing the tablescape of silk flowers and photographs from the top of the piano. That meant that all four children split the remaining thirty minute weekly lesson. That meant 7 minutes each kid. That meant Tiffany Groundhog’s rendition of “Moon River” never made it past Little Miss Washington County. That’s a shame, really. In later years, she moved on to exercise her vocal stylings at the school talent show, singing a rousing rendition of Like a Rhinestone Cowboy in spangled western wear. Tone deaf and waving the American flag, she resembled a patriotic, pre-pubescent, Texan stripper.
That afternoon, Tiffany met me at the flag pole, same as usual. I had been looking forward to seeing the look of horror hit her face when she saw Uncle Joe’s car. Tiffany was used to cream colored Mercedes, I knew she wouldn’t be caught dead in an old pick up truck. But you know what happened? She proved me wrong. She didn’t throw a tantrum and refuse to get in at all. She twirled her hair.
TWIRLED HER HAIR I SAID.
She went all giddy and girly and couldn’t stop talking. When her Mother was around, that child wouldn’t say Boo to a Goose, but in Uncle Joe's truck she wouldn’t shut up. She wasn’t really old enough to know how to flirt, but she tried awful hard. It was embarrassing to watch. Like a puppy learning to lick his own butt.
“Oh my goodness, this vehicle looks so ferocious! Is it really safe for a girl like me to ride in?”
Shit like that.
I was furious. That ride home was MY time. Uncle Joe was supposed to be asking ME how my day went and what I thought about Ancient Mesopotamia, not Tiffany. So I did what any good adolescent girl does best.
The ride was less than 10 miles but it sure seemed like an hour. Entrapment does that to you. Tiffany kept going on an on asking him questions. “How long you in town?” “What do you think of my shirt?” “Do you think club soda will get rid of this lip gloss smudge?”
Uncle Joe eventually started getting uncomfortable and shortened his typically loquacious answers. At some point in conversation Tiffany asked him if he was married, to which he answered in a single word:
“Why not? I’ll bet your still looking for a good woman. You’ll find her, just give it time” said Tiffany, talking like she was some kind of tween Phil Donahue.
“I always say, ‘if you ever find a women who can change a tire with her teeth, then you just found my wife.’”
For a moment there, Tiffany looked perplexed, but then she shook it off and started in again with twenty questions.
I continued to perfect my sulking skills.
The Groundhog’s home had a long circular driveway out front with a small fountain in the middle. Tiffany’s three-year-old brother Jaysun (aka: Little Mr. Pink Tomato Festival 1989) was teetering on the edge. Uncle Joe, who never wore a seatbelt, was something of a safety nut when it came to kids. Upon sight of Jaysun teetering on the edge of the empty fountain, he hit the gas petal. Before the keys came out of the ignition, Uncle Joe leaped from car and grabbed Jayson, lifting him away from the fountain’s edge. Very heroic. In between my sulking sighs I squeezed in a moment to be impressed.
Within two seconds Mrs. Groundhog was on the front steps, screaming "HE’S TAKING MY BABY! STOP THAT MEXICAN! HE’S TAKING MY BABY!"
Based on her Jane Fonda suspender style leotard, I could tell Mrs. G had been working out to one of her aerobics tapes. The sound of a high speed truck and the sight of a tan, bearded man in rags lifting her child off a fountain, somehow, gave Mrs. G the impression that a high end Central America style kidnapping was underway. Tiffany, thoroughly embarrassed of her Mother’s behavior and leotard, quickly explained there was no cause for alarm, all was fine, and she should go back in the house. Without saying one word, Mrs. G grabbed Tiffany by the ponytail and they hightailed it inside. Still sulking in the car, I rolled my eyes when I saw Uncle Joe checking out Mrs. G’s butt as she left. The woman was a humanitarian trainwreck but she had the thighs of a baby giraffe.
Two hours later, all was fine with the world. Dinner was over and Uncle Joe was in the garage helping me build one of those wooden dinosaur models. He explained that the secret to glue adhesion is high volume air surface exposure. I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed good enough for me. I heard the phone ring a few times, but someone always got it after the first ring and didn’t think much of it. It must have rang 20 times before it just plain stopped.
Ten minutes later we heard a car drive up, the door slam, and another one open. Then another door slammed. Then another one opened and slammed. Then there was shouting. It sounded like my mother’s voice was somewhere in the mix, which was highly unusual. My Mom was soft-spoken, not to mention bedridden at the time, which was not unusual. Her health was never good and my Dad was always making sure loud and disturbing noises were kept to a minimum, as not to distress her. Except for a series of internal speakers throughout the house set to play Neil Diamond songs, Mom’s favorite, there were hardly ever any loud noises around our house. This series of slamming doors was new and very scary. I looked at Uncle Joe for reassurance but he didn’t have any to offer. He told me to stay put and rushed off toward the house.
I darted for the tiny garage window to see if anything happened. The earlier discussion about Mexican kidnappings got me thinking and I wanted to keep an eye out. This stuff happened on The A Team all the time!
Not twenty feet outside the garage and Uncle Joe stopped in his tracks. My Mother’s bedroom window flew open, the screen fell out, and a blond head popped out of the hole: it was a Groundhog. The Mother. She was angry and pointed her taloned finger at Uncle Joe and screamed
"SIR, WOULD YOU LIKE TO TELL ME WHY THE HELL MY HUSBAND CAME HOME TO FIND OUR DAUGHTER SUCKING ON A HUBCAP?"
Uncle Joe started laughing like a little boy who farted in church. He just couldn’t hold it inside. Eventually he calmed down enough explain that he ‘may have mentioned’ something about ‘marrying a woman who could change a tire with her teeth’ but how was he to know Tiffany was going to take it literally. He started laughing all over again.
Even from across the house, I could hear my Mother laughing in her room and clear across the house in the kitchen, my Dad was laughing too. Hard. It was a magnificent sound! There wasn’t a lot of laughing around our house at that time and it felt wonderful to hear it again, even if it was at someone else’s expense.
Mrs. G did not take to being laughed at and stormed off. An hour later she sent her husband over to teach my dad and his brother a lesson, but once they told Mr. G the story, the laughing started all over again. Somewhere along the way, they went out to the patio with a six pack and started talking about sports. What is it with men and sports? This man’s wife was running through our house screaming her head off less than an hour before, and now he was sitting on our porch happy as a clam, talking about NCAA Basketball. Typical.
I was still squatting in the garage when they finished the six pack and Mr. G drove home in the cream colored Mercedes. Things were better now, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in trouble for what Tiffany had done. Perhaps that makes no sense, but at the time, I was at that stage in of childhood when I thought everything was my fault. Slipping by undetected seemed like a good idea. Eventually I made my way up to the front door and slipped inside the dark house, down the hall to my room.
In the hallway, next to my door, I found something on the floor. Something sparkly and pink. It was a fingernail! A long, Lee Press-On fingernail just like they advertised on Wheel of Fortune. It must have busted off of Mrs. G’s finger when she was making a ruckus and opening doors trying to hunt down Uncle Joe. A week earlier I would have died for the chance to return such a precious valuable to Mrs. G. But now things were different. I hated that fingernail. I hated her. I hated all her spangled groundhog children, too. I stuck the fingernail in my jewelry box and decided I was going to hold it ransom. I was pretty sure she would be back for it. The bad guys always came back for their valuables. That’s how it worked on The A Team!
To my surprise, Mrs. G never came back for her fingernail. That means, for 20 some years there has been a broken fingernail in my jewelry box. Just nestled in there amongst the charm bracelets. It’s sat there for years, until today, when I dug it up, painted it, glued on a sequin and strung it around my neck like an Olympic medal. It’s a little gross, I agree, but it makes me feel so empowered and proud. So free of expectations and obligations. Like riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo.
...Like a rhinestone cowboy...
Yeah, I know you think it's weird and nasty to wear a 20+ year old acrylic nail that fell off a raging former beauty queen's hand, but you know what? I am weird. And nasty jewelry isn't always a bad thing. It's a reminder of where I have been and where I never ever want to go. And that, in my book, is a beautiful thing.
1. Drill holes in your acrylic nails.
2. Decorate nails as you like. I used peach paint and silver glitter and sequins.
3. Insert jump rings through the holes, alternating with silver spangles (I salvaged off earrings, totally optional).
4. Attach jump rings to the extender chain of a pre-existing necklace. I liked the contrast between the dark/conservative pearls against the sharp/sparkly fingernails, but y'all will have to decide on your own.
5. Cover the top of the tuft with an old rhinestone broach. I just use the pin back on the broach to attach, nothng fancy. It doesn't look too pretty from behind, but it allows me to anchor the broach/tuffet/tassle of nails wherever I want it and keep it there. That's me, I like to keep things functional. Even my fingernail jewelry :)