Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My First Vocation

When I was very young--long before the German nuns had yelled "schnell!" at me; long before I learned to fear other little girls my age; long before the violin, or the piano, or even the solfeggio started--I knew exactly what I wanted to become.

It was nothing like what my mother or my aunts were. As far as I could tell, their occupation was clothes, theirs and mine: thinking and talking about clothes, then shopping for fabric, which included dragging me along while endless bolts of--to me--indistinguishable cloth were brought out and carefully felt and discussed. Then they took this cloth to a dressmaker who lived with her widowed mother in a tiny apartment. More discussion followed, magazines were looked at, and eventually the dressmaker got on her hands and knees and took measurements. On the way home, my mother and her sisters stopped by the mender-of-ruined-stockings and dropped off one or two to be repaired.

While waiting for the next appointment at the dressmaker's, my mother and her sisters mended clothes: they let down the hems of my dresses, turned my father's shirt collars. The next visit to the dressmaker was, for me, a kind of purgatory. It meant standing absolutely still in sweltering summer heat while the basted-on components of my next winter's woolen coat were applied to my sweating body. I stood and smelled the dressmaker's dinner cooking while she wheeled slowly around me like a planet, her mouth full of pins, ripping seams and pinning them together again. I would a million times rather have been sitting next to my uncle, driving the manure-filled cart into the fields, than in this tiny city cubicle, surrounded by my mother and her sisters and the dressmaker, like the hapless Infanta in Velasquez's "The Maids of Honor."

What I really wanted to be, in my earliest heart of hearts, was a fishwife. I saw fishwives frequently in the market, when my mother took me along on her daily shopping. Of all the stall-keepers--the fruit-sellers, the legume ladies, the butcheresses peering from behind their mounds of glistening sausages, the lucky souls who sold live poultry--the fishwives were my favorites.

They presided above a huge display of seafood--the freshly-caught, practically still leaping bounty that Mother Mediterranean used to disgorge for our pleasure. Fish of all shapes and colors were artfully arranged in psychedelic wheels on large flat baskets. I don't remember their names, but there were huge and tiny fish, blue fish, and yes, red fish, alternating with mounds of mussels and clams and other creatures of the deep.

The fish stalls were always dripping wet, and the fish were laid on beds of deep green leaves, and the whole thing was so moist-smelling and slippery and strange that it made you feel that you were literally in the sea. And above all that bounty, singing their enticing chants of "won't you come take a look at my sardines, my beauty?" were those sirens, the fishwives.

I only ever saw them from the waist up, their lower bodies being hidden by the displays, but the parts I could see were magnificent. Their arms were bare and their fingernails were painted red. They grabbed a knife and made a cut and all the fish's guts came out. Or they picked a fish up and put it down and picked another one up instead and plopped it on the scale and announced its price with a big smile of their red lips and handed your mother the package and wiped their hands on their aprons after handling the money.

Ah, their aprons! Stretched across their considerable busts, their aprons were white, and smeared with fish blood and scales. And they were bordered, around the sleeves and neckline, with a good four inches of the most delicate, intricate, extravagant lace you could imagine, lace that would have looked impressive on a wedding dress or a christening gown.

I must have been, at most, five years old. But I knew real luxury when I saw it, and I was captivated by the aristocratic disregard of the fishwives for their finery--so different from my mother and her sisters' worshipful attitude before a length of Prince of Wales weave. Also, something in me really responded to the combination of fish blood, and lace. I too wanted to wear lace and not care if it got dirty. I too wanted to handle fish of many colors. I too wanted to wield a knife....

Years later, on one of my trips back to Spain, I went to the market. The fishwives were still there, as were most of the fish. And the fishwives still wore their spectacular aprons. But now the finery was protected by a transparent plastic apron that kept the blood and guts at bay.

For myself, I went on to a profession that involved little lace and, except in the rhetorical sense, no blood or guts at all. But if I had become a fishwife in Barcelona, I like to think that I would have fought tooth and nail against wearing those protective plastic aprons.

4 comments :

  1. This is wonderful! I particularly loved this:
    "something in me really responded to the combination of fish blood, and lace."

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  2. Thanks, Mali. I felt a little crazy writing this....

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  3. I absolutely adore this post - a masterpiece!!!

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  4. Elizabeth, if I were a fishwife, I'd give you my best fish--to eat or, even better, to paint.

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