Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mantillas



 In Spain, when I was growing up in the 1950s, women wore mantillas to church. These were gorgeous embroidered affairs, white for unmarried girls and black for married women. Anchored by a hat pin, the mantilla was shaped like a rounded triangle, with the tip grazing the forehead and the two sides hanging down over the collar bones. Before the age of reason, which was held by the church to be seven, instead of mantillas little girls wore small round doilies on top of their head.

Some blame Saint Paul (“any woman who prays…with her head unveiled disgraces her head”), while others blame the early fathers of the church for making women wear veils in church. It is easy in retrospect to rage against Saint Paul and his cronies, who regarded head coverings as a mark of submission. At the time, however, we thought of the mantilla simply as a gender-related sign of respect: men had to uncover their heads, and we had to cover ours. Besides, with its scalloped edges framing the face, and the embroidered flowers and leaves both concealing and revealing the hair beneath, the mantilla made almost any woman look mysterious and alluring.

Nevertheless, we took the head-covering issue seriously. If a woman on her way back from the bakery wanted to stop for a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament but had left her mantilla at home, she could throw a scarf or even a sweater over her head. Otherwise, she had to skip the visit altogether (God, we were told, understood these things, and would look kindly upon her intention).

Another ostensible reason for the mantilla was to prevent the men of the congregation from being distracted by the lust-inducing sight of female hair. I found this odd, but then you never knew about men. It was their fault after all that, in addition to the mantilla, women had to wear stockings in church, and sleeves long enough to cover their elbows. Still, even granted their penchant for getting aroused by seemingly harmless objects, I figured that if I had been a man I would have found the elaborate, semi-transparent mantilla way more intriguing than a pair of braids or a head of permed curls.

When I arrived at my Catholic high school in Alabama, I saw that girls, though well past the age of reason, wore not mantillas but “chapel veils,” exactly like the little doily that I had cast aside in favor of the more grownup style after my First Communion. And it wasn’t just high school girls who wore these, but also the adult women who filled the pews with their husbands and kids on Sundays. Some ladies wore padded Alice bands with little stiff, dotted veils pulled down coyly over their noses. Others, having dashed into church on the spur of the moment, simply covered their head with a Kleenex, and secured it with a bobby pin.

I interpreted this nonchalant attitude towards head coverings as a sign of American progressivism, which I was all for. But I continued to wear my no-nonsense Spanish mantilla because I thought it more flattering than the doilies. And if it momentarily distracted from his prayers some hapless boy my age, well, so much the better.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, those tiny chapel veils, perched atop the teased and sprayed, helmet-like hairdos of the time, looked more absurd than ever. By the end of the decade, what with the surging feminist movement and the liberalization of the church after Vatican II, chapel veils and emergency Kleenexes went the way of stockings and garter belts. But the disappearance of head coverings signaled a deeper exodus. Like many of my generation, I put away my missal and my mantilla, and left the church forever. Or so I thought.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Swimming Lessons


My mother believed that for a girl to make her way in society she should, in addition to speaking a foreign language or two, know how to swim and play tennis. In the Catalan village where she had grown up in the 1920s and 30s nobody did any of those things, much less taught them. She had visions of country clubs and elegant house parties in my future, and she wanted to spare me the embarrassment of sitting dry and bored by the side of the pool, or being unable to return a kick serve on the tennis court.

One summer, while we were living in Quito, she heard that a former Olympic swimmer, señor Otero, was offering a girls-only swimming course, and she signed me up. This was just before I developed breasts, while I could still squeeze my twelve-year-old body into my childish swimsuit, a cotton affair with tiny pink roses on a white background..

In the dressing room, as I struggled to cram my thick braids into a white rubber swimming cap, I looked around at my fellow learners. These were no girls! They must have been in their late teens or early twenties, but to me they seemed practically as old as my mother, with fat white thighs and bathing suits that had built-in containers for their breasts.

At an altitude of over nine-thousand feet, Quito’s temperature year-round hovers in the  60s. The pool where we would learn to swim--“like fishes, guaranteed!” according to señor Otero--was outdoors, under a sky that in those days was untroubled by pollution, and with a view of the green slopes of Pichincha, the lively volcano that presides over the city. The pool was unheated.

Before we were allowed to get our feet wet, señor Otero—balding, ripped, and wearing a  tiny bathing suit—dragged out a number of narrow wooden benches and arranged them around the pool. We were each assigned a bench, and told to lie on our stomachs as senor Otero threaded his way among our recumbent forms, explaining the scissors kick and the crawl stroke.

That exercise over, señor Otero led us to the deep end of the pool. “Señoritas, al agua!” he yelled, motioning for us to jump in. The idea was that we would eventually surface, turn on our backs, and practice floating. There was much shrieking as bodies hit the chilly water, but one by one my classmates emerged from the depths and began to float. But I, stunned by the jets of water forced up my nose by the dive, my muscles turned to stone by the cold, just couldn’t do it. Every time I turned on my back, my feet and then my legs, my pelvis, and the rest of me would gradually and inexorably sink.

When señor Otero blew his end-of-class whistle I pulled my soaking-wet braids out of my swimming cap and got shivering back into my clothes. At home, I lay in my darkened room all afternoon while pool water drained out of my sinuses.

Twice a week, for the rest of the summer, I went to swimming class. I suffered through the back stroke, the crawl, the side stroke, the breast stroke and the butterfly. I also suffered from a kind of embarrassment that I had never experienced before: that of being in a group of half-undressed women presided over by an all-but-naked man. I was probably the most naïve twelve-year-old in the western hemisphere, but there was something deeply discomfiting about señor Otero prancing among us, telling us what to do with our bodies, and sometimes helping us do it.

Whether it was because of embarrassment, the mercilessly cold water, performance anxiety, or painful sinuses, while my classmates mastered one stroke after another, I could barely float. And summer was almost over.

Señor Otero’s course would culminate in a demonstration before a crowd of parents, relatives, and boyfriends, and would consist of each student swimming the length of the pool in the stroke of her choice. For me, señor Otero made an exception: I would only be required to float across the width of the pool.

One by one my plump, pale classmates dove in and, using the crawl, back stroke, breast stroke, side stroke and even the butterfly, emerged triumphant at the far end. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and flung myself into the frigid water. I stretched my arms out by my ears and tried to stay horizontal. I didn’t have far to go, but when the cement wall was almost at my fingertips, I felt something bump my hip. It was the head of señor Otero, who, not wanting to have a student drown in front of her parents, had dived in to save me.

A couple of weeks later, my parents went with some friends to El Tingo, a thermal springs resort south of Quito, and they took me along. It was a weekday and the place was practically empty. While the grownups were eating lunch I got into my bathing suit and, ignoring the swimming cap, entered the pool. The sun shone down on me, and in the warm water every muscle in my body softened.

Nobody was watching. I lay on my back and floated a while, squinting against the glare. I felt like I was dissolving in the glorious warmth that enveloped me, and dreamily, without thinking about it, I began to do the back stroke. When my arms hit the cement wall, I realized that I had made it across the entire length of the pool. I turned over and tried the crawl—nothing could be easier! The breast stroke and side stroke were a snap, and I even managed the fearsome butterfly.

My mother was delighted with my sudden metamorphosis into a swimmer. But when it came to tennis, luck deserted us. To this day, whenever I see a ball hurtling in my direction, I turn and run the other way.



Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mediocre Meditator's Prayer


Dear Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe,

Here I am again, on my cushion, chair, or mat,
with my breath, and bones, and heart.
Oh, and my monkey mind, too.

Already the macaques are leaping through the forest of my neurons, and I haven’t even found my breath yet.
Sigh. Right hip hurts a bit.

What am I doing here, on this cushion, chair, or mat?
What am I looking for?

Wrong! I’m not supposed to look for anything.
But a bit of peace wouldn’t come amiss right now,
Goddess/God/ Ground of Being/Universe.

Now the monkeys are throwing fruit.
Gently let them go. Breathe. Is it time to get up yet?
None of this makes sense.
Focus on the heart instead.

How long have I been doing this? I don’t mean just today, but in my life.
Years and years, but not consistently, not faithfully enough, obviously.
Or I’d be better at it.

Don’t judge. Breathe. Accept.
I can’t stop the screeching monkeys
or send blood to my left foot, which has fallen asleep.
The only thing I can do is to keep showing up on my cushion, chair, or mat.

So I do, mostly,
Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Enlightenment at the Vet's


Spent half of Sunday last week at the emergency vet clinic with Bisou. As animals came in they were triaged, and since Bisou was not in dire straits (her problem had to do with anal glands), we had to wait. And wait. And while we waited I fretted.

As often happens with humans as well as dogs, now that we were at the clinic Bisou seemed less bothered than she had been at home. She’d had this anal gland issue before, and I knew what to expect. So what was I doing here, waiting for what seemed like an eternity? Couldn’t I make her comfortable with warm water compresses and take her to our regular vet in the morning?

Meanwhile, cats arrived yowling in their carriers. Energetic young dogs (not much apparently wrong with them) leaped and twisted at the end of their leads. Bisou looked around and was entertained. I pulled out my Kindle and went back to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of the best novels ever. You may have seen the BBC adaptation—it’s about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, are also among the most depressing books I’ve ever read, having to do with man’s (and woman’s) cupidity, cruelty, and stupidity.

As compelling as Mantel’s writing was, I couldn’t get into it. I kept wondering whether sitting hour after hour with a dog who wasn’t anywhere near death’s door was the right thing for me to be doing. Was I being silly, alarmist, absurd? Would the emergency vet laugh at me?

There were other things I should be doing. I had agreed to join a group to write letters to people in Arizona that afternoon, urging them to register to vote. What if, as a result of my failure to show up, half a dozen Arizonans didn’t vote, and my party lost the election? You know what they say about a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon… (on second thought, there probably aren’t any butterflies left in the Amazon).

Worst of all, I felt sure that any intelligent adult in my situation should be able to discern the right thing to do: whether to wait as long as it took for the vet to see Bisou, or pick up the leash and head out the door. So while in Mantel’s novel one side burned heretics at the stake and the other beheaded, hanged and disemboweled those who refused to go along with Henry’s wishes, I flogged myself with the notion that, whatever the right thing might be, I was failing to do it.

Two hours passed. Bisou was getting antsy, and I could neither read nor relax. And then out of the blue I had an insight: I had always lived with the assumption that for each situation there was an ideal response, and that it was up to me to figure out what it was.

But what if, I thought, gently moving Bisou’s muzzle out from under her tail, sometimes there isn’t a clear course of action? Perhaps, faced with my stay-or-go dilemma, even the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and Stephen Hawking might have found themselves uncertain about the right decision.

If, like me, you are saddled with perfectionist tendencies, the thought that sometimes there isn’t a right answer will make you uncomfortable. On the other hand, how soothing to the dithering brain the acceptance of uncertainty, with its concomitant absolution from guilt!

Finally Bisou was called, her wound salved, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories dispensed. Back home after our four-hour ordeal, I gave Bisou her meds, applied a warm water compress to her nether regions, and put an e-collar around her neck. I didn’t make it to the letter-writing meeting. If my favored candidate loses in Arizona, I'll be sorry, but I won't flog myself about it.



Wednesday, September 18, 2019

First Day of School


I started school when I was six, and until I entered that first-grade classroom I cannot remember having been in the presence of another child my age.

The school was run by an order of German nuns who had fled Hitler and come to impart punctuality, discipline, good posture, and the German language to the daughters of the Barcelona élites. It was an expensive school, and my parents would not have been able to afford it if I hadn’t been their only child. But the nuns’ German accents carried a whiff of exoticism that my mother, whose fondness for strange people and places would later lead the family to Ecuador, found irresistible.

That first morning, not just my mother but my father too marked the solemnity of the occasion by walking me to school. As my classmates and I were being marched into the building, I turned for a last look at them. Why weren’t they coming with me? When Schwester Maria showed me my desk, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was in a room without a relative in sight--no parents, aunts, grandparents, or great-uncles and -aunts—just strangers.

I already knew how to read, so that part was no trouble. Nor, unless she addressed me in German, was Schwester Maria a problem, since I was well accustomed to dealing with grownups, whom I usually found to be reasonable and who could be trusted to keep their word. What terrified me were the other girls.

I could make neither heads nor tails of these turbulent midgets, who exhibited none of the courtly manners I was used to from adults. On the very first day, in German class, we were called on to read a list of words: die Mutter, das Mädchen, etc. When it was my turn, all went well until I got to der Vater. Not realizing that in German “v” is pronounced “f,” I gave it the Spanish pronunciation, which, unfortunately, also sounded like the Spanish word for “toilet” (el vater, from “water closet”).

To say “toilet” instead of “father”! What could be more hilarious to a class of six-year-olds, on the first day of school? Instead of calmly correcting me, as my mother or my aunts would have done, my classmates burst into gales of laughter that only stopped when the Schwester rapped on her desk.

But that was nothing compared to the sufferings I experienced during playtime, when my classmates exploded out of the classroom and into the gravel yard, screaming at the top of their voices. Why were they yelling? Why were they running around? What was I supposed to do? I was used to being led and instructed at every step by adults, but here nobody was explaining anything. I had no idea of how to approach the other girls, start a conversation, or join a group.

We all went home for lunch, and when it was time to return to school, I told my mother that I was done. I didn’t like school, and wouldn’t be going back. She answered that of course I had to go, I was a big girl now, etc. I resisted. She tried to take my hand. I grabbed the arms of the rush bottomed chair I was sitting on and held on with all my might. But she pried my fingers loose and I had no choice but, sick at heart and weeping with humiliation, to go down the marble stairs of the apartment house and out on the street, to what felt like my place of execution.

One day I heard a girl ask another “me estás amiga?” (are you my friend? the use of the verb “estar” implying the temporary nature of these friendships). So the next day I gathered my courage and approached one of the more popular girls, the beta if not the alpha of the class.

Me estás amiga? I asked, tremulously. And she answered “no,” flicked her braids, and turned away.

That was it for me on the playground. All during class I dreaded the approach of play period, and all during play period I longed for the bell to ring so I could take refuge at my desk. I did finally find one girl to share the misery of those play periods. She was even shyer than I--the omega of the grade. We didn’t particularly like each other, feeling an obscure contempt for our mutual weaknesses, but we tolerated each other because we had no choice.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, I developed amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” My mother rushed me to the ophthalmologist, who said that the only way to keep me from losing sight in the lazy eye was to cover the good eye with a patch for one year.

This did save my eyesight, but it was disastrous for my social life. One of my more boisterous classmates—bright blue eyes, blond curls, freckles—looked at my patch and screamed, “it’s contagious!” And the whole class squealed and scattered. Fortunately her father, who was a doctor, heard about this and made his daughter apologize, and I shed my leper status.

I spent my school years oscillating between mind-numbing boredom and heart-clenching anxiety. The boredom occurred in the classes that involved reading—History, Spanish, and Religion. Every year, on the first day of school, when the new books were distributed, no matter how hard I tried to control myself I would race through and read them to the end, which left me with nothing to discover for the rest of the year.

The anxiety-producing subjects were German (I never did understand the difference between dative and accusative); arithmetic (my father had no talent for numbers, so my family excused me on the grounds of heredity); handwriting (both my father and his father had exquisite handwriting, so there I was a bit of a disgrace); and handwork (crochet, knitting, and, later, embroidery).

But physical education was the worst. Until I entered first grade I had never thrown a ball or raced another child. My inexperience, combined with poor depth perception caused by my lazy eye, made phys ed. a trial all the way through college.

In grade school, calisthenics, for which we wore knee-length bloomers under our uniform, and which were led by a nun in full habit, was a relief, since I was tolerably good at following precise directions. Also, perhaps thanks to the flexibility I inherited from my double-jointed paternal grandfather, I excelled at forward and backward somersaults. (Since the nun in her long habit was our only phys ed. instructor, I can’t imagine how she demonstrated these.)

As it happened, the subjects that scared me most were taught by nuns (we had lay women, native Spaniards, for the others). However, despite the bitter stories that people often tell about their Catholic education, in my twelve years of Catholic school in three different countries I did not see a single instance of a child being hit or treated in an improper way. There was strict discipline, certainly, but by the same token, even in my co-ed high school we never had to worry about being threatened or harassed by our peers.

Nevertheless, it is true that I was afraid of the German nuns. But I think that that had to do with language. Their Spanish was far from perfect, and when they ran out of patience they ran out of Spanish too. Being scolded or simply instructed to do something quickly (schnell!) by a frowning nun in a foreign language terrified me, so my strategy was to pass unnoticed. At the end of the year I never got awards for academic performance. Depressingly, my prizes were for “buena conducta y aplicación”—in other words, I was well-behaved and did my homework.

The boredom/anxiety ratio shifted over the years. After I felt comfortable understanding and speaking English I grew less anxious and more bored, with the exception of math and phys ed. classes, which continued to mortify me all the way through college.

I am happy to report that my fears of other people disappeared long ago. But sometimes at night, when I think about that first day of school, I can feel once again in my palm the hardness of the arm of the rush-bottomed chair I clung to, and the despair at being fished out of the calm waters of my infancy and flung into the roiling torrent of the world.

Third grade. I'm in the middle row, next to Mater Hilaria. The girl who mocked my eye patch is at the other end of the same row, next to the lay teacher.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dilemma

Had three appointments with service providers this week, and they went something like this:

The hairdresser parted my wet hair into sections, picked up the scissors and said, “And what are your plans for this afternoon?”

 “Got any plans for the afternoon?” the chiropractor wanted to know, preparing to twist my head off my neck.

“Got anything fun planned for later on today?” said the dental hygienist, adjusting the chair.

And the dentist: “Open wide? Awesome! Ummm...do you have any nice plans for the rest of the day?”

When I mumbled something noncommittal they all, with the exception of the hygienist, asked if I had any exciting travel plans or have been anywhere exciting recently.

I find these questions embarrassing. Don’t these people know that I know how boring they must find their clients’ responses? Do they really think that I am so naïve as to assume they will be fascinated when I tell them that I expect to take a nap the minute I get home, then maybe read a book? Do they think that I have no theory of mind?

But if there is one thing I have in spades, it’s theory of mind. I have so much of it, in fact, that I am often silenced by a too-vivid image of how trivial what I’m about to say will seem to my listener.

 Is there anything more soul-killing than someone nattering on about their schedule? The only being on the planet on whom I inflict the details of my afternoon plans is my spouse of fifty-two years. Ditto for travel plans and stories. Who, aside perhaps from one’s own mother, wants to hear about the bistro in Bogota or the flight to Madagascar?

So when people assume that I do not possess the ability to put myself in their place (something that the normal child learns to do by about age four) I feel patronized and embarrassed.

I wonder why these otherwise capable professionals persist in these inquiries. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for five years, and for five years he’s asked about my plans for the afternoon, never noticing that every time I deftly shift the conversation to his Labradoodle,  who is in fragile health.

This tiresome practice is probably the fault of some business guru, who came up with the idea that asking clients questions about their schedules and travels would improve their satisfaction and lead to financial success. But that only works if the clients have a strong narcissistic streak, or lack theory of mind.

My hairdresser, my chiropractor, my dentist and hygienist are professionals. I am their client. I don’t need to feel that we are buddies. Why can’t we rest peacefully in our respective roles and dispense with these attempts at formulaic chitchat?

Of course the trouble with theory of mind is that it is just that: a theory. Which means that when I imagine that my dentist would be bored if I told him about a trip I took in 1984, I may be wrong. He might in fact be deeply interested in my story, and feel gratified that I am willing to share it with him. Perhaps he gets lonely, endlessly digging around in people’s mouths while they cringe in anticipated pain, and is starved for conversation.

So what should I do--answer the questions and be found boring, or dissemble and be thought unfriendly?  The horns of this dilemma are sharper than a dentist’s drill. The only solution I can think of is to let my hair grow to my waist, do hours of yoga every morning, and commend my teeth to the Universe.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My Inner Snail


Donat pressa! my mother urged at the door of our apartment, as I searched everywhere for my chapel veil. We were on our way to Mass, and if we didn’t get there before the Ofertory we wouldn’t fulfill our Sunday obligation.

Corre, corre! the maid Luisa would say as we trudged up the hill to my school. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns who taught me.

Schnell, schnell! Schwester Maria hissed as I dawdled outside the classroom.

“She’s so slow!” the nuns would lament to my mother. And they were right. In the morning, it took me forever to unbutton my coat, put on my smock (we wore white smocks over our woolen uniforms to protect them from ink stains), find my desk, and get my homework out of my satchel. At lunchtime, I had to reverse the process, and I was always the last one out of the building.

Neither the nuns nor my mother scolded me for my slowness, but I spent my childhood being pressed to get on with it, stop dawdling, pay attention! It felt as if I were mounted on a snail, while everyone else galloped past me on horseback.

It took me ages to learn to tie my shoes. I was ten before I learned to ride a bicycle, twelve before I learned to tell time. I was the last in my class to finish a row of knitting, and in playground chase games I never caught anybody, but was easy prey for my faster classmates.

I lived in a world where people were in a perpetual rush. My father would come home for lunch, fling off his coat, and sit at the table. He would put his watch by his plate and announce, “I have five minutes to eat!” and five minutes later he’d be out the door, violin in hand, on the way to rehearsal. Although my father was the main rusher in the household, my mother, my aunts, and the maid also seemed to live in a whirlwind of activity.

For my part, I dwelt inside a kind of semi-transparent egg, where sights and sounds reached me dimly, and mostly without claiming my attention. While the world spun around me, I peered dreamily at random objects—the s-shaped arm rest in the Tyrolean-style dining room bench, the crusty bread crumbs under the table after a meal, the blue and yellow floor tiles, the raised velvety flowers on the ugly sofa upholstery. I wondered about invisible stuff too, and astounded my mother when, at four years old, I asked her to explain what things were like, before they existed.

But mostly I thought about things that I hoped would happen: that a sudden illness of my maternal grandmother’s would mean that I had to leave school and go with my mother to help out at the farm. And, later on, that my father’s negotiations with the Ecuadorian government would work out so that, again, I could leave school and go with my parents to Ecuador.

In Ecuador my woolgathering habit persisted. Because of the discrepancy between the Spanish and the Ecuadorian systems, at twelve I was put in a class with fifteen-year-old girls, whose obsession with hairstyles, boys, and their “monthly visitor” made me think that they were all insane. I retreated deep inside my egg, and in four years made only one friend, a girl who, as the eldest of twelve children, was accustomed to taking care of slower siblings.

My inwardness was more obvious than I knew. One morning I realized with a start that I was still standing in the silent school courtyard when the rest of my class had filed into the classroom. But I wasn’t alone. Regarding me with her sparkling green eyes, Madre María, the dreaded vice-principal, shook her wimple and said, “I see you’re out of it as usual, Benejam!”

It was only in my teens that I learned to hurry. I hurried to learn English, to clean the house, to play the violin in my father’s orchestra, to finish my term papers, to sterilize my sister’s formula, to put my hair up in rollers at night, to get to Mass in the morning.

With Time’s winged chariot forever at my back, I became a champion hurrier, but at the cost of leaving things half done, of putting the final period on a paper that I knew could be much better, of having to make do with good enough. Newly married, I watched in wonder as my husband dried himself after a shower, from head to toe, including between his toes. I was used to jumping still half-wet into my clothes, never mind drying between my toes.

The older I got, the faster I rushed—mothering, working, cooking, thinking. I did everything at top speed, schnell, schnell! But that was only on the outside. Inside, I was still the same slow me, pondering endless trivia, riding my snail, and wondering if things would ever slow down.

Now that the mothering, the working, and the cooking are mostly over, I still feel that there isn’t enough time in the day for all the things that must be done: clipping the dog’s nails, folding towels, answering emails, inquiring about sick friends, meditating, exercising….My fondest hope is that, sometime in my remaining years, the slow, backward child that still dawdles inside my brain will stop trying to keep up, and be at peace with her snail.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Telemann and the Spider Plant


He glares down at me like a gargoyle from the top of the six-foot bookcase, lashes his tail, blinks. “What!” he says, and goes back to administering the death by a thousand cuts to my spider plant.

I have, since Telemann came to us from the mean streets of Philadelphia two years ago, disposed of most of my houseplants. The ASPCA’s list of plants that are toxic to cats lists 417 species (including, for some reason, catnip), so I am now down to a couple of citrus trees, a jade plant, and my once-flourishing spider plant, which is not poisonous because, if it were, Telemann would have died long ago.

When Telemann first arrived, the spider plant was busy making babies on a shelf in the sunroom. Swaying in the slightest breeze, those babies proved irresistible to a kitten who had, poor thing, until now been deprived of toys, stimulation, healthy food, veterinary care, love, and a warm home. As soon as he saw those plantlets, he knocked down a couple and ate them.

I moved the plant to the dining table, but by the next morning several more babies had perished. I thought that the sideboard would provide refuge, but it didn’t take long for Telemann to enact the botanical equivalent of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

I transferred the grieving mother plant to the highest spot in the cottage—the top of the tall bookcase in our bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of light there, but spider plants are tough, and after a while it started to look more cheerful. But that was before Telemann figured that it was only an easy five-foot leap (I made my husband measure it) from the nightstand to the plant. We covered the top of the bookcase with loops of packing tape, sticky side up, but that didn’t deter Telemann, who is probably the only cat on earth who doesn’t mind sticky tape on his paws.

Why are cats so amoral? Why do they do bad things and not care? Dogs try hard to be good, and if they sometimes fail, they suffer pangs of conscience. When Bisou used to do bad things, she always felt guilty. (Now that she’s ten, she hasn’t done anything bad in a long time.)

You’d think that after all I’ve done for him Telemann would let us have one measly spider plant to purify the air while we sleep. But reciprocity is not in his repertoire. If, as the cliché has it, dogs give humans unconditional love, cats expect unconditional love from us.

Still, despite his disastrous effects on my houseplants, I always manage to forgive Telemann, partly because in a weird way I admire his après moi le déluge attitude, his focus on his own desires, and his confounded nerve, which remind me of various autocrats, past and present. Luckily Telemann, with his velvety gray fur, little white paws, and slender body, is much easier on the eye. Plus he does have his sweet moments, when he becomes a purring, kneading machine, and exacts all the unconditional love I have to give.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Milestone

Google Blogger, which keeps track of such things, tells me that as of last week I have published one thousand posts on My Green Vermont. Other than breathing and sleeping and brushing my teeth, I can’t think of too many acts I’ve repeated a thousand times.

Back in 2008 the friend who got me started (thanks, Indigo!) had to explain to me what a blog was. Wanting to avoid unnecessary gaffes, I consulted a number of websites about the rules of successful blogging. And they all said the same thing: you must post frequently. Daily, if possible. Several times a day, if you’re really serious.

I took the advice to heart and gradually increased my output until by 2010 I was posting over four times a week. That was the most I could manage, given that I’d also taken it into my head to accompany each post with a drawing. None of the how-to-blog sites recommended this, but I did notice that most blogs featured photos, many of them beautiful, sensational, or both.  Apparently, online readers expected to be served pictures along with words.

I had a digital camera but its battery was unreliable, and rather than deal with that I decided that it would be simpler and more creative to illustrate my posts by hand. (Now, after all these years, I could paper a room with the originals of my little drawings.)

How did I come up with so much to write about? It turns out that blogging is like finding a loose thread in one of those factory-made hems—you give a little tug, and it just keeps coming. I would start a post about one of my pullets laying her first egg, and that led to memories of being in bed recovering from the measles, with my pet lame chick hobbling and cheeping on the blanket.

I wrote endlessly about chickens and goats and gardens and woodstoves and the wonder of having made it to Vermont, where I could finally live “close to the earth,” as I proclaimed on the blog’s banner. When it became apparent that I couldn’t sustain my homesteading way of life indefinitely, we moved to a retirement community, and for a while I wrote about the dramas of downsizing, and the necessity of letting go of beloved objects and remaining flexible in spirit if not in body.

And then, one day, there seemed to be nothing more to write about. Gone were the goats and the milking pail, the hens and the egg basket, the compost and the wheelbarrow. The woodstove gave way to an efficient gas fireplace and my garden was reduced to a couple of potted citrus trees in the sun room (I gamely squeezed out a post about those).

What was the meaning, if any, of my new life? What occupied my mind? There were my fellow residents, obviously, and the shock of living in a kind of village where the only people under sixty-five were the staff. Plenty of grist for the mill there, but what if a neighbor took it into her head to read my blog?

Between 2015 and 2018 I only managed a measly total of sixty posts. And, just as the advice websites had predicted, my readership all but disappeared, drawn no doubt to livelier, more committed bloggers who managed to post every day, or even twice a day.

Then this year, in the dark of winter, I was spending my days in a miasma of politically-induced despondency. I badly needed to shake myself out of that state. What if I started blogging again, maybe only once a week? I could pretend that it was a real job that required me to post every Wednesday, except in case of emergency. What did I have to lose?

And so I tricked myself back into writing, and once I gave that initial tug, the thread kept coming. Now my week has rhythm and shape.
With a feeling of dread approaching nausea (what if, this time, the thread has broken, the well run dry?) on Thursday morning I force myself to spew whatever is in my head onto the screen. On Friday I piously gather any crumbs worth preserving and ditch the rest. I spend the weekend adding more crumbs and worrying about how I’m going to wrap the thing up.
On Monday I ditch some more and, if I’m lucky, come up with an ending. Tuesday is for drawing and for fighting the improvements that Canon insists on making to my scanner. On Wednesday, just before I hit “Publish,” I ditch some more (how could I have let this ridiculous sentence almost make it into the finished piece?). For the rest of the day I bask in the relief-- reminiscent of the way I once felt after my daily run--of having written.

And because I fret daily about meeting my self-imposed deadline, other worries, such as about the fate of the nation, not to mention the planet, are temporarily forced to take a back seat. It’s going to be a long, angst-filled political campaign. The way things are going, I may have to start posting daily, just to keep my sanity.




Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Face of Love


I don’t have the words yet to explain why what I want is so important, so I open my mouth wide and yell, and stamp my feet.

Olé, olé!” my mother claps, “Are you a flamenco dancer?”

If I had been frustrated before, now I am enraged. How dare she? How dare she mock me when I am trying to communicate something crucial? I would like to fly across the room and bite her on the leg. But her ploy has worked, and I swallow my tantrum, lest she laugh at me again.

My aunt swears that she taught me to read when I was three, so this next scene must have happened around that time: I am in a store with my mother. A nice woman, dressed in black (women in black are everywhere in Barcelona in these days after the Spanish Civil War), strokes my cheek and, for some reason, asks me if I can read.

“Yes, I can,” I answer.

“No. You don’t know how to read yet,” my mother says.

“Yes! Yes! I can read!” I insist.

My mother pulls an envelope out of her purse and thrusts it in front of my face. “O.k., then, read this.”

The letters on the envelope are small, rounded, and crowded together--not at all like the big, clear letters of the alphabet that I have just begun to learn. The writing swims and blurs before my eyes, which are filling with tears. How can she humiliate me like this in front of a stranger? Isn’t she supposed to be on my side? And didn’t she just the other day, when I finally made it to the end of the alphabet, exclaim “What a big girl you are—you’re reading!” I feel betrayed and full of spite, and I would bite her if I could….

It seems odd that a little kid would have a fully developed sense of personal dignity, and would react with such force when it was attacked. Where did this come from? Was there an extra gene for dignity in my DNA? Or does the fact that those rages felt so primal mean that they were less about dignity than about survival as my own person?

In the coming years, I learned to divert my rages and do to myself what I would like to do to my mother. In my room, with the door closed, I would roll up my white uniform blouse and bite my forearm hard enough to leave tooth marks.

I don’t think that my mother, who was not a cruel woman, realized any of this. If she had been mean all the time, it would have been easier for me to take a stand, and simply hate her. But hers was the face of love in my life.

The happiest moments--happier even than the morning of January 6, when the Magi brought me gifts--were those occasions when, my father being away, she would let me share her bed and we would cuddle before I fell asleep enveloped in the smell of her skin.

To me she was more beautiful than any woman in all of Spain, possibly in the entire planet. I embarrassed her one day when, coming back from Mass, I confided that I’d been examining the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, demure in her white veil, blue sash, and mild expression, and concluded that my mother was every bit as beautiful as She.

But if in the daytime I found my mother as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, at night I had a recurring nightmare in which a green-faced witch, not unlike the one I’d seen in The Wizard of Oz, drew me irresistibly toward her.  The horror of the dream lay in my utter helplessness, in the knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried to oppose her, she could, by the sheer force of her personality, bend me to her will.

To my huge relief, just before I disappeared into the witch an angel who looked to be my own age appeared and whispered, “Stay with me, and you will be o.k.” I did, and we watched together as a gust of wind carried the witch away. I haven’t had that dream in a long, long time, but I remember with gratitude the heaven-sent angel of my childish rage, who, in the nick of time, flew down and returned me to myself.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Miracle


“And please, God, send me a little brother or sister”: this was the coda that, as a child, I appended to my nightly prayers for years, with no luck. I prayed as I would have prayed for a dog or a kitten--something or someone that I could relate to on my own level, who would stand with me inside the circle of ever-watchful, concerned, loving adults. Someone, especially, who would distract my mother from her intense focus on me. A fellow soldier in the battle for a separate self.

My parents prayed too, but I'm not sure they did anything besides praying and exercising their “conjugal rights,” like consulting a specialist. Or did the fact that I slept in their room until I was in school keep that longed-for second child at bay?

Although openly affectionate with each other, my parents adhered to a Victorian standard of modesty. Until his final illness, I never saw my father even in his robe. When I was still sleeping in their room and he got up in the morning, he would say “Don’t look! I’m going to get dressed now.” By using the plural form of the verb, he was ensuring that I believed that my mother wasn’t allowed to see him naked either. At night, in the dark, I would sometimes hear them whispering, and for a joke I would make whispering noises back at them. But I don’t recall ever hearing anything remotely sexual.

Years passed, and I was exiled to the Murphy bed in my own bedroom down the hall, but still nothing happened sibling-wise. After a while I stopped asking my mother why my prayers went unanswered, but I never stopped praying—not through our four years in Ecuador or our move to Birmingham after that. Then, when we least expected it, my mother got pregnant.

We marveled and rejoiced and gave thanks, but, at four months, my mother miscarried. I remember my father, as he walked out the door to rush her to the hospital, turning to tell me not to look in the bucket that was left in the bathroom, which he had hurriedly covered with the lid of the old-fashioned washing machine tub. I obeyed, and while I was in school the next morning, he buried the baby, a boy, in the backyard.

We all gave up hope then. What, after all, were the chances of another pregnancy after fifteen years of sterility and a miscarriage? Apparently they were excellent because, the year after that, at age forty-two, my mother got pregnant again. We held our breath and prayed hard for nine months, and this time my sister, the long-awaited miracle, was born, and all was well.

I had just turned sixteen, and far from being embarrassed, as teenagers are said to be, by this scandalous evidence of sex among the elderly, I was thrilled. Even though she wasn’t the companion I had prayed for, I loved the strangeness of this new creature, and the disruption she created in the household. I peered at my sister with the same intense curiosity as I had watched the chickens and rabbits of my grandparents’ farm—why did she cry every evening when the sun went down? Were her early smiles the real thing? What made her clench her fists and pull up her knees when she cried?

I threw myself fervently into the diaper-changing and bottle-washing routines. I longed to feed the baby, but my mother jealously guarded that function.  I wondered at her anxiety that my sister, born at a vigorous seven pounds, would starve to death if she didn’t finish her bottle at every feeding. I was aghast when she pinched her tiny nose to force open her mouth so she could insert the nipple. Surely a baby knew when she’d had enough? It was my first consciously critical look at my mother’s parenting style.

“Weren’t you jealous?” people ask me when they hear the story. Alas, no. Jealousy would have implied a shift in my mother’s attention away from me. But my mother was perfectly capable of continuing to scrutinize my face, my posture, my dress, my sleep habits, my tone of voice, and the state of my soul while she held my sister in her arms. My sister and I were, in fact, two only children, and although my prayers had been answered in the literal sense—I now had a sibling—I was still without the fellow soldier I had longed for in the guerrilla wars against my mother.

But if I didn’t gain a comrade, I did reap other benefits from my sister’s late arrival. All the diaper-changing, bottle-washing, and babysitting I did from ages sixteen until my parents finally loosened their grip and let me leave for graduate school at twenty-one stood me in excellent stead when I had my own children in my mid-twenties.

For one thing, despite the prevailing ethos, I was determined to breast feed them, having had enough of washing and sterilizing bottles and mixing formula during my teenage years. For another, having carried a baby on my hip while I myself was still growing, I had somehow learned to trust that a healthy infant is a sturdy creature, not likely to keel over and expire without warning. Although I had my share of maternal anxieties, compared to the perennial jitters of the other young mothers around me, I felt relaxed and free to enjoy my babies.

My sister is closer in age to my daughters than to me. She and I grew up not only in different eras but in different countries and with different languages. But despite all those differences, when we speak she often shocks me by saying something that could only have come from the lips of one of my mother’s daughters.
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Bisou at Seventy


My little red Cavalier, Bisou, just turned seventy in dog years, which makes her almost my age. How did she get there so fast? Every day I scan her for signs of aging, as I do myself.

She sleeps more than she used to, and she only occasionally gets the zoomies, which in her youth were her default mode. Her hearing is failing. Unlike me, however, she doesn’t have recourse to hearing aids, nor to cataract surgery, although her eyes are growing cloudy, and if she were human she would be worried about driving at night.

We both languish in temperatures over 75F, so we take our walks early in the morning or after sundown. When I see her panting and looking haggard, I start to wane myself, and we head home, where, after extracting burrs and seed pods from her fabulous “feathers,” I give her an ice cube to chew while I rub one on my pulse points.

 I worry about her teeth. Despite daily brushings, she’s had to have several pulled, and for her, dental implants are not an option. So far her muscles and joints are holding up, and she leaps on and off the furniture with relative abandon, but for how long? And when her hips start acting up, will I get her a hip replacement, to match my own? Although this surgery is available for dogs, I doubt that I’ll put her through it.

She was such a wild puppy! At nine weeks, no bigger than a cantaloupe, she would entice my two German Shepherds, Wolfie and Lexi,to chase her. She had a much tighter turning radius than they did, and she calculated her chances of escape to a nicety. If worst came to worst she would dash under a broccoli plant—the super-obedient  Shepherds, who had been taught never to set foot in the garden, could be counted on to come to a screeching halt at the edge.

But if they did catch her, she had perfected what I called the “omelette flip,” turning on her back and exposing her defenseless little belly, which would instantly disarm the big dogs.

Inside the house, she flew from sofa to windowsill to coffee table. One day, chasing one of the Shepherds, she tumbled down our steep staircase. I rushed to pick up what I expected to be her lifeless body, but she was already at the other end of the house, pursuing her prey.

One of her pastimes was to get the ever-patient Wolfie to open his mouth wide enough so she could stick her head inside.

I  know that he looks ferocious, but it was all her idea. And this is how they looked after she’d finally gotten her wish:

For five years now, she and I have been doing weekly therapy visits at the nursing wing of the retirement community where we live. Bisou’s job is to stare soulfully into the residents’ eyes while they pet her and reminisce about their own long-gone dogs.

The people we visit are usually sitting in recliners or wheel chairs, and because Bisou worries about falling off their lap, I end up kneeling on the floor, holding her up so the resident can reach to pet her. Getting up off the floor has become more and more challenging, so last week, the staff member who accompanies us on our rounds showed up with a small stool for me to sit on. I felt like a medieval queen that day, walking the halls with a page following behind, carrying my seat.

Back home after each visit, Bisou and I fling ourselves down on the bed, physically and emotionally exhausted. We are not what we once were. In my files there is a detailed Advance Directive that I hope will avoid the prolongation of my final days. When Bisou’s time comes, however, she’ll have to rely on me to know when to end her suffering. I hope I’ll be able to serve her well.

Is Bisou my last dog? If she lives an exceptional five more years (Cavaliers, though small, are not a long-lived breed), I will be nearing my ninth decade when she dies. A puppy will be out of the question. Perhaps a tiny dog, one as ancient as I, might do. Or maybe I should content myself with the cat.

Do I want to even think about this stuff? Of course not. But it is the task of this life stage to learn to look unblinkingly at matters that, only a decade ago, seemed abstract and far away. To reflect about death, my own and the dog’s, and then take her with me into the shadowy woods, hoping for a glimpse of the fox--that is the work that occupies me these days.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Boys in my Class


 For all my writing about the drama of starting high school without knowing English, you’d think that there would be some trace of that in the journal that I kept at the time. But if you read that journal, which I wrote in Spanish, you would never know that my English was anything less than perfect.

I did not write about my anguish when I had to diagram a sentence, or when the P.A.’s garbled announcements came on, or when I didn’t understand a test question. Nor did I write about my constant worry that my deficiencies would become apparent to my teachers, and I’d be cast into the outer darkness.

What did I write about in my journal? I wrote about boys.

Landing in Birmingham in late 1958, learning English, figuring out the school rules, trying to fit into a culture that was both alien and compelling—none of these challenges held a candle to the real shocker: there were boys in my class.

And not just in my class. The whole school was overrun with them--boys by the dozen, in the chapel, the stairwells, the gym. Boys in crew cuts, jostling each other in the halls, dropping books and slamming doors, stretching out their long legs under the desks. Boys with voices that switched unpredictably from bass to soprano. Boys who looked like men, and boys who looked like little kids.

Until 9th grade, I‘d hardly ever spoken to a male my age. I was the only child on both sides of the family, and in my German nuns’ school the only man was an ancient Augustinian friar with a waist-long white beard who came once a week to hear our confessions. My school in Quito was also boy-free, with the exception of the ones from the Jesuit school who would follow our school bus on its rounds, shouting and gunning the engines of their motorcycles.

In my all-female schools, the smartest kid in the class was always a girl, as were the troublemaker, the shy one, and the mean one. When the teacher asked a question, whoever knew the answer raised her hand, without a second thought. If somebody made a mistake, no one hesitated before correcting her. The best mathematician, the fastest runner, and the daintiest embroiderer were all girls.

But now here I was in a class overflowing—they took up so much more space than girls—with boys. As with most aspects of life in America, I found them fascinating as well as terrifying. How was I supposed to behave around these odd beings? On the rare occasions when one of them addressed me my scant English would desert me, and I would stare and stammer until he turned and walked away.

I watched the other girls for hints of how to act. The more popular ones, the ones who got phone calls from boys and went out on real dates, seemed to smile and giggle a lot, and they didn’t speak up much in class.

The giggling and smiling disconcerted me. I hadn’t had any experience with boys, but I’d read a few 19th century Spanish novels, in which the lady was always indifferent to the hero’s passion, which paradoxically made him desire her even more desperately. So imbued was I with this principle of female behavior, that whenever a boy showed the slightest interest in me--no matter that I would have given ten years of my life for a date or a mere phone call from him--I would instantly quash it with my severe looks.

My 19th century tactics didn’t work with American boys, who were accustomed to positive, or at least intermittent, reinforcement from girls. My outmoded notions, combined with my general awkwardness, put them off, and they mostly ignored me except to make fun of my, to them, unpronounceable name.

But there was another factor behind my lack of success with the opposite sex that took me a long time to figure out. As a result of eight years of all-female education, I didn’t realize that certain ways of acting in class might repel my male classmates. Blithely unaware of the appropriate modes of feminine behavior, once my English improved, if I knew the answer to a question I never hesitated to raise my hand. Even worse, it didn’t occur to me to hold back from contradicting something a boy had just said. In those moments, I was more interested in impressing the teacher than in inspiring love.

So I spent those early years sitting at home by the silent phone, writing feverishly in my journal about which boy had said hi to me in the hallway, and which boy had kicked my desk in a meaningful way during Religion class. It is a wonder that I managed to learn anything—how to speak English, or how to write a term paper, or the five proofs of the existence of God—with boys all over the place.

Sadly, these days I periodically hear from former classmates that one or another of those boys has died. And when I learn of such a death, I mourn not the balding patriarch of a loving family, but the long-legged, mysteriously alluring teenager eternally barging through the school halls of my mind.



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.”