I hold my grandson Ezie’s foot in my hand and pull away his sweaty sock while he watches The Amazing World of Gumball, his favorite cartoon. When he was a toddler, he would dangle his foot in front of my face so that I would hold it to my nose, breathe deeply and toss it away in mock horror at the atrocious odor. His feet smelled like sweet baby powder then and he’d giggle uncontrollably at this game. “Do again,” he’d squeal.
Now his eight-year-old feet really do stink like boy dirt and he merely tolerates my need to play with them. I examine his toe nails. So like his father’s, my son Ben. The rounded big toe’s nail is wider than it is long. All the others are completely uniform.
I remember holding Ben’s foot while he watched Pee Wee Herman, peeling away his sock and being horrified that his toe nails had grown so long that they were curving over the ends of his toes. So, I clipped them and this became a ritual. Holding his feet and clipping his toe nails while he watched TV.
What I didn’t know then was how much I would miss it. How much I’d long for those sweaty socks and toe nail clippings, that sticky face and matted hair, lethal farts and urine dribbles.
You don’t tickle even good friends or hold their feet, examine for excess ear wax or head lice. These things are a sign of family intimacy. The bond between children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents. It’s about trust and innocence. It’s easy and messy and stinky and good.
And very one-way. Kids grow up and don’t want to be touched and groomed. They clip their own toe nails. But grandparents and parents get old and can’t clip their own toe nails any more. My friend Jill makes a weekly stop at her parents’ home to clip their nails. She’s the only person I know who takes on such a saintly responsibility.
When my grandmother was alive, I witnessed one of my cousin’s kids spend a whole hour gently playing with the loose skin on grandma’s upper arm as they sat together in the back seat on a long car ride. She looked so relaxed. The only time I’d touched her in years was to slap a mosquito on her forehead.
Touch. It’s such a basic human need. A family intimacy that cannot be replaced by the clinical touch of professional caregivers. I’m going to start touching my parents more. I’m going to linger in my mother’s parting embrace instead of fleeing for the door. I’m going to sit on the couch very close to my dad with my hand on his knee and whisper into his ear. But I think I’ll still leave their toe nail clipping to a pro.