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Big Mamaís Toenails
by Jan Risher

Oh, my aching feet.

Before the arrival of her little sister, I worked and worked with my 5-year-old daughter preparing her for life as a sibling. Though she's had her moments, my older daughter is doing fine. So is her baby sister.

Frankly, I think my time would have been better spent preparing myself for the task of dividing my attention between two little beings wanting and needing my love and affections. I'm handy with the multi-tasking, but comforting and fixing and kissing and answering and hugging and holding in two directions can wear a woman down.

Not to mention the job. Not to mention the house (though my husband would say it's impossible to divide zero). Not to mention the yard. Not to mention the never-ending piles of laundry.

I know that there are women reading this and laughing out loud. I know that mothers with loads of children must get a kick out of my consternation and babbling about adjusting to motherhood with two children. Go for it, you deserve the bit of mirth at my expense. I can handle it, but while you're at it, I'll take your advice. Seriously, send it on.

Any woman who has managed to mother children has my respect. One woman, in particular, who shared her mothering advice with me, earned my deepest admiration. She was my great-grandmother. I'll go ahead and admit that we called her Big Mama.

Big Mama was a God-fearing, church-going, chicken 'n dumpling cooking woman, the likes of which I've rarely known. My great-grandfather died relatively young (though he did manage to father eleven children). I never knew him.

But, boy did I know Big Mama.

When I was a young child, she scared me silly. However, we grew to have a singular spectacular relationship. I can't imagine the piles of laundry and necessary cooking to maintain her household.

I can't imagine how her feet must have ached. After all, I knew her feet well. When I was about 16, I was the lucky girl she anointed as Chief Toe Nail Cutter.

She needed her toenails cut more often that one might think possible. She would call and I would ride my bike the one block to her house. I would sit on the floor and she would get comfy on the sofa and stick out her foot. First the right one and then the left.

If you've never had the pleasure of this task, I'll tell you that old feet are... interesting. I'll also let you in on an important toenail clipping technique. Go easy. In the art of toenail clipping, less is more.

Big Mama and I spent many afternoons together. I would clip and listen.

I was 16 and had the world by a string; there were other places that I would have rather been. I didn't have a clue about two children pulling me in different directions and trying to keep bills paid, rashes salved and hair combed. But I kept listening to Big Mama, never dreaming that certain words and phrases would stay with me for so long.

Though her feet hadn't traveled far, they had surely been through interesting times and places. She recounted tales of chickens for wedding presents and of the years when she used a gigantic map of the Great State of Mississippi as a tablecloth. Every meal was a geography lesson for her children.

Her children.

Mainly she talked about her children.

One day when she was 87, she was sitting on the couch chastising me for cutting her big toe's nail too short. I was quick to apologize not wanting to provoke her wrath, even though we were on friendly terms. (After all, I was the one with the clippers.)

But at one point that afternoon, she looked at me and said in as earnest a tone as possible, "I raised eleven younguns and not nary one of them was a drunkard or a whore."

From the vantage point of my own aching feet, I have new-found respect for Big Mama's standards.


Jan Risher is a mother, teacher and writer. She lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, with her husband and two daughters. Her weekly column appears on Sundays in Lafayette's The Daily Advertiser. E-mail Jan at Jan@JanRisher.com.


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