The Year my Grandmother Ruined Thanksgiving with her Coke Nail

I sat on the carpet and pretended to be engrossed in the Montel Williams show coming through the giant console television in front of me. But what I was really focused on was behind me: my grandmother—known affectionately as Mother — in her easy chair the same color as a baked potato. She was clicking her pinky and thumbnails back and forth, biding her time until she’d light her next Marlboro Red cigarette.

Mother has always maintained one exceptionally long thumbnail on her right hand. The other nails are comparatively shorter but still pretty long by normal standards. The thumbnail in question stretches inches beyond the tip of her bobble-clad finger. So when she passed the monotony of her day by snapping her nails back and forth, that giant thumb cuticle of hers resonated magnificently. And with that resonance came my fascination. I was little and bored and had the habit of making the people around me the object of my anthropological curiosity. Living with my grandparents at the time—my grandfather working the second shift at a box factory and my mom in college—left me with Mother and her oddities to explore.

So when I finally felt brave enough to get close to her claw that day, I decided to test its strength. I wanted to see what the thing had in terms of structural integrity and was curious about its potential to bear a load. Eventually, I wanted to be able to take a sledgehammer or lighter it, perhaps in a roadside show with me as her favorite grandchild/tour manager. The ultimate goal to earn a slot on QVC, selling embellished acrylic nail extensions molded after Mother’s. We’d go on right before the commemorative Grace Kelly Jewelry collection.

I made my way to the base of Mother’s chair and climbed up her leg, along the way noticing her pinky toe permanently curled over the adjacent one. I almost stopped there. I urged myself to keep moving forward with the mission at hand. Mangled pinky toe is for another day. I slithered onto her lap and started to play with her hand, which fortunately enough was not yet occupied by a cigarette or remote control. I had intended to apply only some force, maybe even use a nail file on it, but at the point of this attempt, Montel Williams and Sylvia Brown began to shout, “Go to God! You’re dead!” Their advice to viewers experiencing the paranormal was to shout this at ghosts. It startled me, causing me to nearly bend Mother’s thumbnail completely in half, which, in turn, caused her to let out a howl and swat me on the ass.

I’d be too afraid to get close to Mother’s thumbnail for a very long time after that, knowing it only as a harbinger of doom and sore butt cheeks. I would think of scenarios of how to broach it, but then there’d be Montel on my right shoulder and Sylvia on the other saying, “You might as well go to God, cause you’ll be dead.”

It wasn’t until I started noticing strangers at the grocery store or cigarette outlet staring that I learned of the illicit practices connoting a singular, extra-long nail. My mom blithely explained, “they just think it’s a coke nail.” She added, “it’s not. She won’t even have a sip of champagne — though that might do her some good.” I stared at my feet, disappointed — I so wanted for there to be a backstory behind Mother’s Faux coke nail. “Don’t worry about it,” my mom said. I didn’t. But my curiosity about Mother’s thumbclaw persisted.

I eventually figured out the real reason why she kept the nail so long. It was her vessel of authority. She’d rap on the car window with it — the ultimate power move — to let my grandfather know we should be stopping at the Bon Ton because she was in need of a new leisure suit or that she wanted to eat lunch at the Perkins and harass a sixteen-year-old over the amount of whipped topping on her pile of hotcakes.

“Bill,” Mother addressed my grandfather whose name is actually Fred. “Pull off here. I need to pay my bill at JC Penny,” she demanded, all the while snapping her nails together.

“It’s a one-way. I can’t,” Bill aka Fred tried to reason.

“Make it happen, Bill. Click click.” A bead of sweat had formed on my grandpa’s temple as he clutched the steering wheel and defied all traffic laws against his better judgment to appease Mother. Her coke nail was a window into the machinations of her mind — a thing to be both feared and revered.

There was also a benevolent side to Mother’s thumbnail. It wasn’t uncommon for Mother to beckon me over to the stove while she was fixing supper. When everyone else was out of sight, she’d give a come-hither of her unguis, and I’d scurry over to her side. She’d lower that canyon of a thumbnail of hers, revealing a healthy portion of salt. I’d expeditiously consume my salty pre-dinner treat and run off to resume playing with my sister on the decrepit RV growing vegetation in the backyard, her never the wiser about my habit.

But I, like most others in our family, did come to internalize the hegemony of Mother’s coke nail. Years later when we had moved out of my grandparents’, and I was in high school, I accidentally got locked out of the house with my boyfriend. We scanned the perimeter for the best window to jimmy so we could get inside to do whatever it is that two teenagers in a really unhealthy relationship do.

I said to myself, “A good coke nail could definitely pick this lock.”

“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” My boyfriend asked.

“Nothing,” I replied and handed him a bobby pin, his image diminishing in my eyes for his needing to use an implement rather than his own keratin.

During my sophomore year of college, my mom hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Naturally, this meant that my Mom and I would be handling whatever Mother found on sale, last-minute at the wholesale retailer of her choice — as is her yearly tradition. The year prior it had been personal pan cornish game hens for everyone at the table; this year it was a giant bag of crab legs, which could have comfortably fed a family of Fundamentalist Mormons. Mother delivered her score Thanksgiving morning, as my mom was already elbow-deep in a turkey. When mother arrived, my mom looked at her in anguish as she fisted the turkey, “this is a little last minute, don’t you think?” The familiar sound of something keratinous in the background punctuated their exchange.

“You’ll figure it out,” Mother said. “You’re a smart girl.” Click click. “I need to finish doing my hair now.” Click click. I could see her hands clasped behind her back, methodically snapping her coke nail. “Oh, and one more thing.” My mom and I braced for impact. “I hope someone remembered to get a butter turkey.” Mother turned on the heels of her Orthopaedic Cole Haans and walked out the door.

My mom shouted for my aunt Kim, her younger sister. “I forgot the fucking butter turkey.” She visibly struggled to steady her turkey-stuffing hand. I started uncorking a bottle of wine and reached for a glass.

“The fuck is a butter turkey?” Aunt Kim asked.

“You know, there needs to be a butter lamb on Easter, a butter tree on Christmas, and a butter turkey for Thanksgiving.” She looked at aunt Kim as though she had just asked if she could take a shit in the Turkey.

“Well, she doesn’t technically need any of those. But it’s her. So should I run to Tops?

“You can’t get them at Tops. You have to go to the Broadway Market in Buffalo.” My mom said, nearly in tears — Buffalo is an hour and a half away from her home. I put the glass of wine back in the cupboard and handed her the bottle, wondering if we could fashion a butter thumbnail for Mother’s birthday. By now, Aunt Kathy, Kim’s twin, had shown up. Aunt Kathy plopped a loaf of garlic bread and a bottle of Red Stag down on the counter.

“What’s she got everyone in a fuss over already?” Aunt Kathy seemed to sense the butter embroilment before she even crossed the threshold.

“Lisa forgot the butter chicken,” Aunt Kim said.

“Butter Turkey!” My mom corrected.

The scheduled dinner time of 2 pm came and went as my mom, Aunts, Uncle, and I ran around, trying to prepare the various dead animals which had been hunted and gathered that year in addition to the sack of crustacean from BJ’s Wholesale Club. My grandparents had returned by now, Mother having finished teasing up her coiffure. As we struggled, Mother walked in and out of the kitchen, with hands clasped behind her back, clicking her nails together to check on the status of dinner. With each click, I noticed my mom’s left side twitch. I could tell Mother was getting hungry — she eats for two, after all — and she would be doubly displeased about there not being butter fowl to adorn the dinner table.

My aunt Kathy made the grave miscalculation of heating up the loaf of garlic bread she brought as soon as she got to my mom’s. From across the kitchen, I saw Mother home in on the bread, which had now lowered to room temperature. Mother undid her clasped hands, brandishing her crack claw. Tap tap tap her phalange went on the loaf of Texas Toast until she had quieted the room. “This bread is getting awfully cold,” Mother said letting a syllable out with each tap of her nail on the lukewarm loaf. “Hurry up.” She said. My mom and I shared worried glances at each other as we waited for someone to break the silence. Aunt Kathy, the progenitor of the bread, morphed into a pterodactyl and unleashed the flood gates of years of anguish at the hands of Mother’s disapproving coke nail. I expected Aunt Kim, or maybe even my mom, to say something, but not Aunt Kathy. Aunt Kathy usually remains cool, only taking a swig here and there of her Red Stag to drown out Mother’s disparaging thumb clicks. But not this day.

“You want the bread?? You heat up the mother fucking bread,” Aunt Kathy growled and slid the loaf across the island to Mother in an attempt to usurp the harridan of Keratin, reign of House Coke Nail. The room erupted in shouts more cacophonous than a Guitar Center filled to capacity with middle-aged men. I could tell this familial dispute would be acutely vicious, even by our standards. I went to another room to ride this one out, but when I got there, I found it already occupied by the two minors in the family: my sister and cousin. They were both under ten and crying. I was annoyed. My older sister got to miss out on this because of a Black Friday shift at the Victoria’s Secret where she lived an hour and a half away. She merrily went out the door with her leftovers, mere minutes before the fever pitch of this evening.

“Is someone going to die?” My younger sister mustered through sobs as my cousin held onto her. I shrugged and walked away. That soared above my pay grade I thought as I went back to the comfort of the kitchen where the adults were hurling food items at each other. My grandfather entered the ring.

“You don’t talk to my wife that way!” He shouted at my aunt Kim. Interesting choice, I thought, to be picking a side rather than break up the strife that had clearly and intentionally originated from his wife’s rabble-rousing fingernail. But after considering the 40 plus years under Mother’s coke thumb, his reasoning made sense to me. Aunt Kim shoved her finger right back at him, “We aren’t taking her shit anymore, dad!” I looked at the dinner table, which had been improvised with steel chairs to accommodate everyone. I positioned myself in front of the chairs, fully prepared for someone to grab one and use it like a WWE superstar. Luckily, no one resorted to the furniture to inflict bodily harm. That night’s episode of Monday Night Raw was only ceased by my Uncle Steve’s sage decision to pull my aunt Kathy off the heap of fighting street cats.

Mother spent the rest of the evening relegated to the couch, watching the Buffalo News. We took turns bringing her plates of food and topping off her decaf coffee. She looked dejected sitting there on the couch by herself, not saying much except the occasional, “I can’t believe I raised such wild animals.” Click click. I sat at her feet and pulled out the nail file I kept in my back pocket for these occasions. I looked at her sock-covered foot. Damn. I remembered that I had never gotten around to checking out her mangled pinky toe.

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