Wednesday, July 17, 2019

My Mother and the Can of Crisco

During our years in Quito, my mother learned to shop in the open-air markets where Indian women, wearing long braids and black fedoras, layers of petticoats, and, usually, a baby on their back, squatted on the sidewalk. On the ground in front of them lay the produce of the high Andes: mounds of potatoes, piles of onions and corn, and slabs of meat. It was all very real and natural, and crawling with flies.

Her first encounter with an American supermarket was, therefore, a shock.  Everything she could want—from food to cleaning products--was in one pristine, air-conditioned place, all of it canned or neatly wrapped in plastic or cellophane.

One aisle had a surprising array of toilet papers--some strong, some soft, and all in gentle pastels. This was not what my mother was used to: in Spain, the only brand had been a no-nonsense brown, with a picture of an elephant uprooting a tree on the wrapping, while in Ecuador public bathrooms were invariably stocked with squares of newspaper. She was especially taken with the selection of paper napkins, also in many colors. “So hygienic!” she said. “You can have a fresh one at each meal.”

After four years in Quito, where she had to buy her chickens on the hoof and boil every drop of the water and milk we drank, my mother was understandably fascinated with the prospect of ready-to-eat meals. And she wasn’t alone. In that innocent and trusting age, American women cheerfully filled their grocery carts with canned vegetables, meats, and desserts. Here were convenience, nutrition, and endless freshness, and all you needed was a can opener. What was not to like?

The problem for us was figuring out what was inside the cans. The pictures on the labels weren’t always helpful. What, for instance, was that pink cube called Spam? What were those squishy cylinders called marshmallows? The tuna cans had pictures of fish on the label, but as a good Mediterranean my mother wouldn’t think of buying fish that wasn’t practically still wiggling.

We wandered the aisles, feeling increasingly frustrated, when I spotted something that might do. “Look,” I said, “it says Chili Con Carne! Whatever chili is, it has meat. It’s probably o.k.” My mother put the can in her cart and we walked on.

Then, when we were about to give up and leave with an almost empty cart, my mother held up an enormous blue and white can. It had pictures of delicious foods on the label—chicken legs coated in crisp batter, and biscuits, cookies, and slices of pie. Surely, my mother thought, this was the ultimate expression of American practicality: an entire meal in a single can. We bought a can opener and headed home for our first American dinner.

In the kitchen, my mother emptied the chili into a frying pan. “What are all these beans doing mixed with the meat? Your father won’t be too happy,” she said. My father and his family had starved during the Spanish Civil War, and one day he and his brother had managed to steal a huge sack of dried beans, which the family ate for months. Beans were one of the few foods that my father objected to.

As the chili heated, my mother took a taste. “Mare de Déu!” she exclaimed. “This is awful. Here,try it.” I did, and spat it into the sink. The harsh flavor of chili, spicy and bitter, stuck to the back of my tongue.

“Maybe if we eat it with bread,” my mother said, opening a loaf of Wonder Bread and handing my father and me each a slice. But that soft, pliable, crustless square was unlike any bread we’d ever seen. My father took a bite and closed his eyes, chewing. “I feel like I’m eating a piece of towel,” he said.

Our first American meal wasn’t turning into a success. “Well, we can’t eat this. Let’s try the other can,” my mother said, guiltily scraping the chili into the trash.

It took her a while to work the opener all the way around the top, and when she lifted it she said “What is this? Come look!” My father and I ran into the kitchen. The can was filled to the rim with a solid white mass.

“Maybe the food is hidden underneath” my father suggested.

My mother got a wooden spoon and carefully, not wishing to disturb the fried chicken and biscuits and desserts, dug out a bit of the white goo. But there was more goo under that, so she kept digging and digging until finally it became clear that the chicken, etc. on the label had been a lie designed to entice people to buy a six-pound can of that weird white substance.

“It’s some kind of grease,” she said, rubbing a bit of the stuff between index and thumb. “What can Americans possibly do with it?”

My mother dined out on the Crisco story for years. I found it embarrassing and humiliating, and would leave the room whenever she told it. In a way, the Crisco episode mimicked my experience of the American dream: promises of abundant delights as shown in the movies and TV that, upon closer examination, revealed a strange and impenetrable mystery.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Lipstick Wars

In the late 1950s, in my Catholic school in Birmingham, Alabama, girls wore their hair short, their skirts long and tight, and their lips coated with dark red lipstick.

I was o.k. on the hair and skirt fronts, and I even had a little orange scarf that tied around my neck, like everybody else. But none of this meant anything if my lips were bare. Lipstick was the magic wand that would camouflage my all-too-obvious foreigness, catapult me into American teenagerhood, and give me a chance of becoming at least slightly popular.

“I’m the only one in the entire school who doesn’t wear lipstick, besides the boys,” I complained to my mother.

“What about the nuns? Do they wear lipstick too?” she said, trying for irony.

 “Is that what you want me to become, a nun?” I answered. “Because that’s what will happen, if you force me to be different from everybody.”

“That’s enough!”my mother said.

I stomped off to my bedroom and sat biting my nails, dreaming of the boys I’d date and the dances I’d dance if only I were allowed to wear lipstick.

I endured ninth grade without lipstick or dates. Then, on my fifteenth birthday, a savior appeared in the form of Miss Harrington. Tall, thin, gray-haired and bespectacled, she was the very image of the spinster school teacher. She even lived with her mother. Miss Harrington taught Spanish at a public school, and she adored my parents, who were the only native Spanish speakers she had ever known.

Miss Harrington knew teenagers, and she understood the drive for affiliation that at that age rivals the sexual urge in intensity. So on October 3rd, 1959 Miss Harrington showed up at our house, made a little speech in front of my parents about what a grown-up young lady I was becoming, and presented me with a tube of Tangee lipstick.

It was a deep red bordering on purple, a color that would make even a fifteen-year-old face look middle-aged. But hey, it was a lipstick, and I could always tame it by blotting. I thanked Miss Harrington, barely restraining myself from kissing her feet in gratitude, and, with a triumphant glance at my mother, ran to the bathroom to try it on.

When Miss Harrington left, my mother pointed at my purplish mouth and said, “Take it off.”

“But Miss Harrington gave it to me. She’s a teacher! She knows Americans, and she doesn’t think I should be different from everybody.”

“And why shouldn’t you be different from everybody? We are not Americans. We are Spaniards, and in Spain little girls don’t wear lipstick.”

Why, you ask, didn’t I simply pretend to throw away the purple lipstick, hide it in my book bag, and put it on the minute I got to school? Because I was a good girl, that’s why, and I believed that obedience to my parents was second only to obedience to God.

But nothing said that I had to obey gladly, and as I fumed and ground my teeth, I had an idea. My mother’s sister was a teacher in the German nuns’ school I’d attended in Barcelona. She would know what Spanish teenagers were wearing, and, as my aunt, she would have my moral welfare at heart. My mother would, I reasoned, have to abide by her verdict.

So I wrote my aunt a letter begging her to intercede on the lipstick question, and sent it off by airmail. It took a week to get there, and her response another week to arrive, but when it did it contained these magic words: “a bit of pink on the lips would not be unbecoming…”

My mother was sautéing garlic for a sofregit when I ran into the kitchen waving the letter in the air. “A bit of pink’s o.k., she says! She says the girls in her school are wearing it! So now I can too!” But my mother tightened her lips, shook her head, and went back to stirring her sauce.

I was in my forties before I became aware of the deep rivalry that existed between my mother and the elder of her two younger sisters, and to realize that my aunt was the last person on the planet whose advice my mother would have taken on matters concerning me.

That summer, we went to Spain. My mother’s sisters, seeing me shapeless, pimply, and awkward, took me in hand. One bought me a bottle of Depurativo Richilet, a potion designed to purify the blood and get rid of acne. The other sewed me a sleeveless dress, full-skirted and cinched at the waist,that made me feel almost beautiful.

One night, as I was leaving for a party wearing the new dress, my aunts beckoned me into their bedroom and put a tiny smear of pink on my lips. I could barely see it, but I knew it was there by its weird, sticky feel, and I felt glamorous as well as guilty. I was almost out the door when my mother saw me, turned me around, and pointed to the bathroom.

She finally gave in on the lipstick issue when I turned sixteen at the start of eleventh grade. She was forty-two years old and nine months pregnant with her second child, and I suspect that she was too tired to keep up the fight. But my lipstick adventures were not over.

My religion teacher that year was an older Irish priest, Father MacCauley, who taught a cerebral approach based on the theology of Thomas Aquinas. This made us feel grown-up and intellectual, and we would argue in the cafeteria about which was the most convincing of the five proofs of the existence of God, and whether birth control really was a sin against human nature.

In one of his more bizarre lectures, Father Mac announced that, whereas it was man’s essence to be rational, women were by nature incapable of rational action. (How he got away with such pronouncements when the majority of his colleagues were Benedictine nuns I have never understood.) The boys in the class hooted with delight when they heard this, but at the end of the hour we girls got together and formed a compact: we would come to school the next day without wearing lipstick! That would show them!

I don’t remember what effect our bare lips had on Father Mac’s theories, but when we walked into English class, Sister Mary Rose took one look at us and exclaimed “Is something wrong? Y’all look so pale!” A few minutes later, I was called to the office. It was my father on the phone, telling me that the baby had arrived, and it was a girl.

In retrospect, I don’t hold it against my mother for taking a stand on the lipstick question. Who among us parents hasn’t on occasion put our foot down unnecessarily?

What I do object to is her holding me hostage to her own issues as an immigrant. It was very well for her, at forty, to emphasize her Spanish identity, which, among other things, made her an exceedingly entertaining dinner guest. At fourteen and fifteen, however, my identity was as fluid as a bowl of unset Jello.

Yes, I was proud of being Spanish, and I enjoyed the attention that being the only foreign student in the school occasionally got me. But I also intuited, in a nebulous way, that clinging to my foreignness would never get me invitations to sleepovers, or that holy grail of adolescence, a date to the prom. The exotic—unless it’s carried by someone far bolder and more self-assured than I was—doesn’t hold much fascination for teenagers, who generally prefer conformity.

With one foot on either side of the Atlantic, trying to interpret America to my parents while striving to please them in all things, I didn’t have an easy time of it. But I don’t envy my mother her task, either, and I’m certainly glad that I didn’t have to rear my adolescent daughters in a foreign culture. Which is why I can confer on my now-deceased mother the absolution that compassionate adults sooner or later bestow on their parents: “She did the best she could.”

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Words, Words, Words

Remember “surreal”? People used to say it all the time, mostly in situations that had nothing to do with limp watches or dreamlike events.

 “The service here is so slow, it’s surreal!”

Now you hardly ever hear “surreal” anymore. It’s been replaced by “iconic,” which again is used in ways that have nothing to do with those gilded Russian angels, saints and madonnas painted on wood.

According to the dictionary, an icon, in the figurative sense, is “a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.” So a map is an icon of sorts, because it stands for and in fact resembles a geographic region.

Also in a figurative sense, an icon is a person who is especially revered or adored: Lady Gaga is a pop music icon. If you try, you can imagine her with a spiritual look in her eye and a veil on her head, its folds rigid and symmetrical, the whole framed in gold and illumined by flickering candles.

It is in this sense that “icon” and “iconic” are now being used ad nauseam. And it’s not just people who are iconic: Secretariat was an iconic horse, Rin Tin Tin an iconic German Shepherd. Recently I even heard someone on public radio refer to something as “an iconic moment,” which stretches figurativeness farther than I can follow. (I usually refer to NPR as such an icon of media excellence that I’m allowed a tiny criticism here.)

It’s not so much that I object to the meaning of a word expanding to designate objects it didn’t originally refer to. I object to the overuse that dilutes and enfeebles it and turns it into a minor irritant, like a finger poking an old bruise. My spouse encourages me to become more tolerant, but I guess I’m just an icon of linguistic hypersensitivity.

And then there’s “awesome,” as in “Would you like ketchup with your fries?”

“Yes, please.”


Really? I thought that “awesome” might describe Moses’ experience conversing with God on Mount Sinai, or the feeling one gets standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon—reverence mixed with admiration and a dash of fear. But no.

“I’ll pick you up at five, then.”


Patience, according to Saint Teresa, obtains all things, so if I can grit my teeth a while longer, “iconic” and “awesome” will probably go the way of “surreal.” There is one word, however, whose figurative use will likely go on and on, because it can mean almost anything that the speaker likes: cool.

At first I thought that my generation had invented it. Then I remembered “cool jazz,” the calm, restrained jazz style of the late 1940s. Some believe that originally it referred to the behavior of African slaves, who had to conceal their anger beneath a veneer of detachment.

Which is better, I wonder, “cool” or “awesome”? Whom would you rather marry, who would be more likely to treat you well and stick by you in the long term-- someone cool or someone awesome? Awesomeness is warmer, which might make it the more desirable trait in a spouse.

Which reminds me that, contrary to logic, “hot” is also a positive trait, though a partner who once incarnated hotness may become more cool (and not in a good way) over time.

Isn’t language surreal?

Friday, June 28, 2019

No More Spanish, por favor!

I was in a state of dread watching the second Democratic debate last night, fearing that the candidates would feel obliged to follow in the steps of Beto O'Rourke and Cory Booker the night before, and break into Spanish.

On the first night, when those two stammered their few ungrammatical, mostly incomprehensible sentences in the language of Cervantes, I cringed. And then I got angry. Did Booker and O'Rourke really think that the Hispanic population would be so swept away by hearing them mumble a couple of sentences in Spanish that they would forget to examine the candidates' records and their policies? How much more patronizing can you get?

Julián Castro also said a few things in Spanish, but they came more naturally to him, by reason of his heritage. Nevertheless, I find the habit of larding speeches with foreign sentences in order to manipulate the emotions of a certain population silly at best--sort of like a male candidate attempting to capture the women's vote by dressing in drag.

Language is a powerful thing. When I hear on the news the voices of captive immigrant children crying mamá! papá! it brings tears to my eyes, because those are the names I called my parents as a child. I remember myself newly arrived in the U.S., and I imagine being separated from them. But when I hear Spanish badly used for political effect, I don't feel flattered or included. I feel insulted.

Still, this is a crucial moment in politics, and I am pragmatic enough to recognize that a candidate may have to resort to less than pristine tactics in order to win. So I suggest that, with the use of Spanish, brevity is best, as when Julián Castro wrapped up his remarks by promising that, on January 20, 2021, we will say adiós to Donald Trump.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Corsetiere

When I was around twelve years old, my brain was still firmly anchored in the clear waters of childhood, but the winds of puberty were blowing my body towards the foreign shores of womanhood. I had the mind and manner of a child in the body of a woman, which means that I looked odd at best, and slightly mentally retarded at worst. Braids and breasts, acne and hairy legs—that was me on the threshold of adolescence.

My mother, not sure what to do about this phenomenon that was unfolding in her midst, decided that what I needed was a girdle. But we were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply go to a store and buy a girdle. Everything had to be made by hand.

Fortunately, there lived in the old part of town, between a gilded baroque church and the market where Indian women squatted on the sidewalk, selling meat and vegetables, a corsetière. She was a middle-aged Jewish lady from somewhere in central Europe, one of the many who had fled the Nazis to South America. She looked formidable to me, with her gray hair in a bun, her sturdy lace-up shoes and that tightly corseted, moving-from-the-hips look that you never see in older women anymore.

She had me take off my skirt and, mumbling and clucking to herself in a language I didn’t understand, took my measurements. Several weeks later, the girdle was ready. It was a pink satin construction with bands of flesh-colored, rubbery fabric. It encased me from about three inches above the waist to mid-thigh, and when I tried it on I felt that I would never breathe, let alone walk again.

 “It’s too tight,” I complained.

“You wish to be beautiful, yes?” the corsetière asked me. I nodded. “Then you must suffer,” she said, tugging the girdle in place and winking at my mother.

From time immemorial, garments intended to compress the female form were stiffened with whalebone, or baleen, the strong, pliable strips of keratin in a whale’s mouth that filter krill out of the water. My corsetière, being modern, had foregone baleen in favor of two narrow, flat, flexible metal shafts that ran the length of the girdle, on either side of my abdomen. They were concealed by a strip of closely stitched pink fabric, so I didn’t know they were there, though I noticed that when I peeled off the garment it resisted folding and would spring back at me, like something alive.

I was disappointed in the girdle. The corsetière had not attached garters, since my mother thought I was too young for stockings, and without stockings to help keep it in place, it tended to ride up as I climbed the tree in our backyard, or ran up the stairs. Absent stockings, the girdle’s value as an emblem of adulthood was zero, since nobody could tell I was wearing it.

The girdle also made me very, very hot. Years later, in preparation for marriage, my future mother in law gave me Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, in which, along with instructions on table settings and “the art of tipping,” I read that a proper lady should change her girdle at least twice a day. By then it was the 1960s, and landfills across the land were overflowing with the discarded girdles of my generation, but remembering how much I’d sweated in that old girdle, I could see Amy V’s point.

Much to my relief, my first girdle did not last. Sitting in the backseat of our old Dodge one day, I bent to tie my shoelace and felt a sudden sharp stab into the soft flesh of my belly. I screamed.  My mother twisted around from the front seat “What? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I think something bit me. Something big,” I said. Ecuador abounded in large, appalling-looking bugs, and I lived in fear of them.

My father pulled over to the side of the road and my mother got out. She unbuttoned the waistband of my skirt, pulled up my blouse, rolled down the top of my girdle and discovered the cause of the pain: one of the metal stays had broken, pierced the fabric casing, and stabbed me in the abdomen. On the way home, I had to stretch out on the back seat and lie still, because whenever I sat up the girdle would stab me all over again.

Later, my mother tried to mend the tear, but the stay kept poking through, and she finally relented and let me throw the girdle away. But in later years, whenever I underwent discomfort for the sake of looking good—burning my neck with a curling iron, say, or squeezing into too-tight jeans--I would recall the fateful words of my corsetière, “You wish to be beautiful, yes? Then you must suffer.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


I’m pretty much o.k. with looking my age, whatever that means. I don’t dye my hair or have bits of my anatomy surgically lifted, but I do try, whenever possible, to avoid decking myself out in the emblems of past eras, such as bubble hairdos, pillbox hats, and cadaverously pale lipstick.

In the mid-twentieth century, as we girls reached puberty we were given a series of objects that marked our progress towards womanhood: first pair of heels, first girdle, first razor, first strand of pearls. The pearls—real, cultured, or artificial-- were usually gifts from parents or grandparents, a single strand to encircle our youthful necks on special occasions.

My generation didn’t get much use out of our pearls. By the mid-sixties, “serious” jewelry had given way to ethnic and artisanal adornments. We wore chandelier-like earrings that hung down to our clavicles, paper mache bracelets, and bizarre beads and amulets in lieu of pearls.

I still have my pearls. They sleep in a box, wrapped like mummies in a lace doily crocheted by my father’s mother. Sometimes I take them out and look at them. Almost certainly man-made, the pearls are a mellow ivory color, and they have kept their looks over the decades, without peeling or losing their luster. They feel heavy in my hand and, on the rare occasions when I put them on, pleasantly cool on my skin.

I like pearls. They go with everything. They are almost alive, “breathing” air and moisture and changing color with the years and the wearer’s chemistry. The better kind of artificial pearls get their luster from a concoction of fish scales slathered on a glass sphere, so they react to their environment in much the same way as their oyster-made cousins.

In Colette’s novel, Chéri, the courtesan Léa wears her magnificent “rope” of rosy pearls to bed with her lover. If I lived on a desert island, I too would wear my little strand round the clock. But I live in Vermont, where, for good reason, the atmosphere is ultra casual. It’s hard to dress in fancy clothes when you’re trudging through snow drifts in winter and deep mud in spring. In the all-too-short summer, Vermonters are frantically growing veggies in their gardens, and can’t be bothered to dress up.

The Green Mountain State, however, is nothing if not accepting of quirks and fancies of all kinds. You can wear an organza shift with your rubber boots to town meeting and nobody will bat an eye, so why don’t I wear my pearls? Sheer vanity is why. I’m afraid that they might be one of those markers of bygone eras, like the teased hair of the sixties or the pillow-sized shoulder pads of the eighties, that will telegraph my elderly status before I’ve had a chance to impress my audience with how relatively non-elderly I am.

It’s vanity on the same spectrum as hair rinses and eyelid tweaks. But at least the people who undergo these procedures are exchanging something they don’t like (gray hair and droopy eyelids) for something that they like better. I, on the other hand, am denying myself something I enjoy in order to avoid looking like Queen Elizabeth.

Given what I’ve seen on TV in recent weeks, however, looking like the Queen, who wears her near-century with pride, would be infinitely preferable to looking like my fellow septuagenarian, the man with the orange face.

Senior prom, 1962

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Ten Thousand Steps

For years we have heard that taking ten thousand steps every day will make you healthier. And you don't need special clothing, footwear, or equipment. You can do your walking barefoot or in three-inch heels, in shorts or bespoke suits, up a mountain or in your kitchen. The principle has a pleasing Japanese-style simplicity about it, like those exquisite, barely-there flower arrangements. If I bring up Japan, it's because that is where the 10,000-step movement began.

It's a part of my "shadow self" that I can't seem to shake, the tendency to glom onto goals, regardless of their worth. Ten thousand steps--is there a number more absolute, majestic and compelling than that slender digit trailing four plump zeroes? Who could resist it? Not I.

But for a long time I couldn't find a pedometer (did I mention that you need a pedometer?) that counted steps accurately. Then recently I heard about a new generation of battery-powered gizmos that were supposed to do the job. I bought one, measured my stride as instructed, told it my height and weight, and clipped it to my waistband. Then I took Bisou for a walk.

I had no idea what I would find when I checked the count at bedtime. Would the day's harvest yield five hundred or five thousand steps? As it turned out, it was the latter. Not bad, for a baseline, but I was only halfway to my goal.

For the next couple of days I took Bisou for longer walks. In the evening, while watching TV, I set a kitchen timer for twenty-five minute periods, and each time it rang I got up and walked three times around the room. Every night the number on my pedometer grew. On Friday, it showed eight thousand steps.  On Saturday, I did it again.

On Sunday, I couldn't get out of bed.

On Monday, I was hobbling stiff-kneed around the kitchen when I heard a story on NPR that was sent to me personally by the universe. It turns out that the goal of 10,000 steps is not based on any kind of scientific evidence. It was promulgated in Japan decades ago by a pedometer manufacturer who wanted to sell more pedometers.

Now, a study of 17,000 women of a certain age shows that walking a mere 4,400 steps a day had a beneficial effect on the women's longevity. Some ambitious participants walked more, but after 7,500 steps there were no additional effects on longevity (possibly because their painful knees drove them to suicide).

Since hearing that story, I have abandoned my obsession with the 10,000 steps. I am not abandoning my pedometer, however, even though the numbers 4,400 or even 7,500 don’t have the same appeal. I have settled for a measly five thousand steps a day. My knees are already thanking me.

And when the next fitness craze hits, whether it be daily push-ups, jumping jacks, or handstands, I will strive to keep in mind the common sense views of my mother, who lived into her nineties without the aid of canes, walkers, joint replacements, or NSAIDs. She walked every day, making circuits inside the house when the weather was bad, but only for as long as she enjoyed it. 

She would have laughed at my pedometer. "Why do you need a little machine," I can hear her saying, "to tell you when you've had enough?"