From Chicken Soup for the Mother of Preschooler's Soul

Purple Principles

Imagination continually frustrates tradition; that is its function.

John Pfeiffer


That nap hadn’t lasted long, I sighed. I glanced from the newspaper as my four-year-old entered the room.

“What is it, Puss?”

“Can I have my toenails painted today?”

Asleep one minute and toenails the next; I blinked. What went on inside that head? I was constantly amazed by this little pinball-machine mind.

“Er, why do you want your toenails painted?”

“Because Ben and Ollie had red toenails yesterday, and it looked so good.”

I considered that for a moment. Was he talking about the O’Neill twins? “Ben and Ollie are boys, right?”

A puzzled nod and a raised eyebrow told me I’d asked a dumb question. “Who painted the twins’ toenails?”

“Their mom, of course.”

“So,” I inquired, casually, “do the boys have their toenails painted often?”

“Yes, and now I want you to do mine. I want red toes, too.”

I stared at his pleased little face and shifted uncomfortably on the stool. I considered saying I’d run out of nail polish—much easier than explaining that boys don’t usually wear nail polish. But I wasn’t up for an endless round of the why questions it would evoke.

“Do you know something else, Mom?” He pulled off his socks and tweaked his toes at me. “Sometimes Ben and Ollie’s mom even paints each toe a different color.”

I looked at him cross-legged on the rug, eyes wide with admiration for someone else’s mom, and instantly I reached a decision.

“Right, Paddy!” I swooped him off the floor. “Let’s see what we’ve got in the bathroom.”

“No red, only purple.”

“I love purple,” he whooped.

“Me, too,” I whooped right back.

We painted our toenails in a sweet mother-and-son moment. I thought about Ben and Ollie’s mom—with whom I vaguely remembered exchanging a hurried greeting or two as we flew in and out of the preschool Paddy attended four days a week since I’d returned to work. His grandparents kept him on Fridays.

I imagined her as a strong cookie-figure, regularly painting her sons’ toenails, thumbing her nose at gender stereotypes and flying in the face of convention. I, too, could be that sort of mother; I decorated Paddy’s toenails with flourish, vowing to tune in to all reports of Ben and Oliver O’Neill from now on.

But my newfound confidence took its first jolt about an hour later when my husband returned from work and Paddy gleefully told him how we’d spent our time.

“Well, that’s great,” I heard him say in a curious, strangled voice. He took the stairs in twos to reach me. “Why did you paint his nails?” he mouthed urgently, eyes wide in horror.

“Oh, relax, Pete. Ben and Oliver O’Neill have their toenails colored, too,” I reassured. He seemed a little mollified but looked askance at the offending nails for the rest of the week.

And he wasn’t the only one. Living on the other side of the world did not stop my Scottish mother from voicing her opinion in the toenail debate two days later.

“Gran wants to speak to you.” Paddy relinquished the phone after thirty minutes, during which time the subject of toenails had evidently been discussed.

“What are you doing painting that boy’s toes?” she asked. “It’s terrible! You’ll turn him into a girl.”

My father-in-law apparently felt the same way. At the end of the week, I picked up Paddy from his Friday stay with Pete’s parents.

“Grandad says I’m a sissle,” Paddy informed me as we got into the car.

“A what?”

“A sissle. And I don’t want to be a sissle, Mom.” His voice was forlorn. “We’ll have to take off my nail polish when we get home.”

“Why?” I was baffled.

“Only a sissle wears nail polish,” he said, sounding remarkably like his grandfather.

“Oh, you mean a sissy,” I corrected him.

He nodded sadly.

“What do you think that word means?”

“It means you’re a big girl.”

“So, is Mommy a sissle . . . I mean a sissy, then?”

“No, Mommy,” he almost smiled. “Only boys can be sissles. Grandad said.”

Bloody Grandad.

“But what about Ben and Ollie?”

“Grandad says they’re sissles, too.”

In a fleeting moment, I saw him step back from his magical world of innocence and make-believe, of dress-ups and suspended reality, and I knew that something precious was about to be lost.

Not today, though. Not if I could help it. I resorted to guerrilla tactics.

“Well, that’s a shame,” I said carefully. “I liked your purple toenails and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with being a sissle. Sometimes Grandad is one, too.” Through my rearview mirror, I watched his eyes widen.

“When?” he asked, still unconvinced.

I thought about the photograph of my husband’s father taken by me two years ago. He’d played the part of Juliet in his local theatrical production of “Romeo and Juliet— with a Twist.” Posing for my camera had been the least he could do after I’d just sat through that painful debacle.

No nail polish, but plenty of purple tulle. Nice one, Grandad.

“Well, Paddy,” I began, “I’ve got this photograph. . . .”

Somehow, I was betting the purple toes would survive to fight another day.

Maureen Johnson

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