Thursday, October 20, 2005

Footwashing and Pedicures

Growing up as a boy on an Amish farm, one of the highlights of the year was when the ground warmed up enough in the spring that we could shed our shoes for the summer. After a winter of wearing shoes and socks, our soles would be tender (and, of course, our souls were always tender.) For the first week or so that we started going shoeless, we had to hobble gingerly across the gravel driveway between the house and the barn. When our feet got toughened up, we didn't think about shoes as we flew across the gravel. Once the shoes came off in May or so, we went barefooted until school started again in the fall.

Naturally, our feet were not pristinely clean, despite our weekly baths in which they, along with everything else, were vigorously scrubbed. And they were fairly banged up, from stepping in thistles, stubbing toes on rocks, dropping hammers on them and nicking them with hoes.

Nail care was not something we thought much about. I do not remember who trimmed our toe nails, or whether anyone did. I am inclined to think they just kind of wore off, or maybe, tore off, at least during the summer when we were running around with naked feet.

I do remember my father trimming his fingernails, during church, with his ever-present pocket knife, the big blade carefully paring off the thick hunks of nail and letting them drop on the floor. While trimming one's fingernails in church would offend our modern sensibilities, it was not considered rude or gross in the Amish church. The services lasted a good two hours and some kind of diversion was necessary in order to endure. The men and boys were in one room and the women and girls in another, so female sensibilities were not disturbed by the paring and farting.

Amish and conservative Mennonites traditionally have had a peculiar religious rite in which they wash one another's feet as part of the semi-annual communion service. (I realize I am over-simplifying here, as some other religious traditions have incorporated some type of symbolic footwashing into their rituals as well. I am aware that in the Roman Catholic church there is a rite in which the priest washes a parishioner's feet.) The justification for this ritual comes from the stories of The Last Supper in which Jesus washed his disciples' feet.

As a young man, I found the footwashing part of the communion service to be particularly excruciating. (I had not yet given thought to the weird symbolism of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our fallen leader.) In the conservative Mennonite church where I grew up after my parents left the Amish church, the men and women sat in the same room, but each on their own side, separated only by a center aisle. When it was time for the footwashing part of the service, galvanized buckets with warm water and towels were placed along the front pew. Everyone then took off their shoes and socks (I'm told that the advent of pantyhose caused a particular problem for women, but that's none of my concern, at least right now) and paired up for the actual ritual, one person sitting on the bench washing and then drying with a thick towel his/her partner's feet, after which they reversed positions and duties.

The actual footwashing was embarassing enough for a teen-ager, but the worst part was that at the end, you had to shake hands and then greet your partner with a "holy kiss." This part of the rite, too, has an obscure scriptural justification, there being an injunction in one of the epistles to "greet the brethren with a holy kiss." (While we're being technical, I don't see why the sistern had to do it too, but then I'm not a conservative theologian.)

The trick for getting through this ordeal with the least mortification was to quickly pair up with one of your friends, so you could toss a couple of perfunctory splashes in the general direction of the feet of your partner, give the towel a shake, do a quick air buss, throw some coins in the alms basket and get back to your seat, being careful not to look at each other lest you burst out laughing.

The danger for the slow of foot was getting caught by one of the ministers or older men in the church who thought it their Christian duty to cross generational lines and wash feet with one of the youths. Their intentions were good, but their knowledge of youth psychology was nonexistent. You particularly tried to stay away from one of the ministers who was known not only for long, thorough, between-the-toes foot washing, but also giving wet, sloppy "holy kisses" that had you gagging when you thought about it afterwards.

As soon as I started attending a liberal church where footwashing was optional, I exercised my option not to do it anymore. I'll greet my brethren with a hearty handshake, wash my own feet and leave the wet kisses to my wife.

Several years ago when my doctor told me that because of the loss of nerve sensitivity in my feet caused by my diabetes, I needed to take extra care of my feet. No going barefoot, of course, no matter how warm it is outside, but I hadn't done that for 50 years anyway. He recommended having my toenails cut by a professional, a podiatrist or a pedicurist. I had not been having any particular problems with my feet, so I filed his suggestion away with a lot of other good suggestions that I should take -- someday.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a client in our conference room when her cell phone rang. She answered it (much to my annoyance) and it turned out to be her husband who, she told me later, was calling from a nail shop where he was getting a pedicure. She told me they were going on a vacation to the beach in Mexico, and she didn't let her husband walk around in sandals with "gnarly" toenails. I remarked idly that I wanted to get a pedicure someday, and she said, "When?"

"Someday," I said again, but she didn't let me get away with that vague reply; called back to the nail shop, made an appointment for me with Sabrina and arranged to pay for it.

So it was that I slunk out of the office last week and headed for the "U and I Nail Salon," in a strip mall on the main thoroughfare in our town. There was a parking space in front of the store, right next to the street, but I managed to find one off to the side, just in case anyone driving by might recognize my car. All heads (all female) swiveled as I walked in the door despite my efforts to sidle in unobstrusively. At that point I decided a change in tactics was in order, so I announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear, with as much bass as I could muster, "I have an appointment with Sabrina, TO HAVE MY TOENAILS TRIMMED."

Sabrina was a lovely young Vietnamese woman but she had no mercy. "What color would you like?" she asked. I realized she was kidding before my myocardial infarction became a full blown crisis, but I reiterated that I just wanted my toe nails trimmed -- nothing else. I didn't realize what I was saying, and thank goodness, Sabrina gave me what I needed, not what I had asked for.

First, she had me sit in a massage chair with my feet in a minature whirlpool tub. While the tub filled with hot water, she adjusted the chair until I was getting a gentle, but vigorous back massage. Then she turned on the whirlpool so that my feet were getting massaged by the air jets in the hot water. Then she pulled one foot at a time out of the water and started working on my toe nails and the skin around them. When she was done trimming and cutting, she drained the water out of the tub and massaged my feet with lotion.

The whole deal took about a half hour. When she was finished, I said I had one question: "When can I come back?" It was a wonderful experience; almost religious. Not only my feet felt lighter, but my whole body felt more spiritual as I walked back to the car. When I got back to the office I had even worked up the nerve to tell our staff about my mysterious appointment with Sabrina.

I have a different attitude now about footwashing. I would be willing to go back to footwashing in church, if I could have mine done by a Vietnamese pedicurist. I'd probably still pass on the wet sloppy kiss though. (And I'm not just saying that because my wife reads my blog.)


Jo Ann said...

Ah, yes, I had my first pedicure this summer while on vacation in Savannah. I'm glad your client made an appointment for you to have one. I will have one every now and then to treat myself. I enjoyed your description of feet washing as a youth--you captured the feelings of the experience pretty well. Jo Ann

Lauren said...

Great post, I love it! You are a brave, brave man. An ex-Amish man getting pedicures . . . how deliciously appropriate.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks Lauren. Yours is high praise from someone who actually knows how to write. Everyone, please click on the Dream Kitchen link under "Blogs I Read" in the upper right hand corner of this blog to see what a good blog is like.