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.”

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?