Wednesday, May 5, 2021

My Mother, on Beauty

 When my mother turned seventy, she said, “The trick at my age is not to try to look forty. The trick is to be the best-looking seventy-year-old in the room.” When she turned eighty, she told me that she had scheduled a “make-over” for herself. I remember hiding a smile. My mother looked awfully good for her age, but a make-over at eighty? What was she hoping for? 

She was more intensely aware of people’s looks than anyone I’ve ever known. “Look at her with that long neck,” she would say, tilting her chin to point out some unsuspecting woman waiting for the bus. “She should at least wrap a scarf around it. And her poor husband with his little short arms—his hands barely hang below his belt!” And she would shake her head sadly, because there’s nothing that one can do about short arms. 

She focused on my appearance with particular vehemence, but even though I complained bitterly, I benefitted from her fixation. She had my teeth straightened, my eyes uncrossed, my flat feet corrected, my acne tamed. The year I turned twelve, she got me my first girdle, and sent me to have my braids cut off and my legs waxed. She worked tirelessly on my posture and facial expression (“Don’t sit there with your mouth open. It’s not an intelligent look.”) But though she wanted me to look as well as I possibly could at twelve, fourteen, or sixteen, she was adamant that I not look a minute older than her idea of what a twelve-, fourteen-, or sixteen-year-old should look like. Hence, no stockings or straight skirts before fourteen, no lipstick before sixteen. These were the fronts on which, since I cared more about lipstick than braces, we fought our fiercest battles. 

In the 1970s, when I was a grown woman with a husband, two children, goats, chickens, and a profession, she wrote me a letter expressing her concern that I might be in danger of looking “like one of those farm wives I saw when I last visited you. That would be a terrible thing! What would people think?” I might be cleaning out the chicken house, but that was no reason not to look soignée. 

She was unsparing of her own shortcomings in the looks department, but treated them with the insouciance of one who knows she is the only star in her husband’s firmament. “Your father must have loved me a lot,” she confided after she became a widow. “He was a leg man, but he married me even though my legs are less than perfect, as you know.” 

And I did know, because she would comment ruefully about her legs, which were slightly bowed; her hips, which were too wide; and “up here,” meaning her chest, which was too flat. But about her appearance from the neck up, I heard no complaints, and rightly so. She had a wide brow, thin, arched eyebrows above large eyes, a well-shaped nose, and a jaw-line that retained its definition her entire life.                                                                                                                                         

She kept her beauty rituals to a minimum: a slathering of Nivea at night, and in the daytime a little powder and lipstick, and maybe a discreet slash of eyeliner at the outer corner of her eyes. When she was going to the opera, she would curl her eyelashes, and follow this with an application of Rimmel, the ur-mascara that came as a solid black cake in a small flat box. You spat on the cake, rubbed the resulting paste with a little brush, and applied it to your lashes. Then you took a pin and carefully separated whatever clumps of mascara the brush had left behind. (Spitting on the Rimmel cake, along with that graceful backwards twist of the torso to check the straightness of stocking seams, seemed to me as a child to embody the essence of femininity.) 

Other than scraping it off her forehead—because she had somehow conceived the notion that a wide forehead was a sign of intelligence—she didn’t do much about her light-brown, curly hair, which she kept short. But this changed in the 1960s, when hair was expected to rise straight up from the scalp before curving smoothly downwards into a balloon shape. After watching me put my hair in jumbo rollers every night, she observed that in the morning it did form that coveted balloon. But she was too fond of her comfort to sleep on rollers, and she may also have wanted to spare my father the sight of her lumpy head next to him on the pillow. Instead, she recruited me as her hairdresser. After she washed her hair I would put it up in rollers, and fit the hood of the portable hairdryer over them. When the hair was bone-dry, I would take out the rollers and, very gently, because her scalp was sensitive and she would yelp if I tugged, tease, spray, and mold her hair into shape. 

In her eighties she was still, thanks to good hair and good bones, the best-looking eighty-year-old in the room, so when she announced her plans to get a make-over, I wondered what was going on. Shouldn’t she be satisfied that she didn’t look any worse? What could any process, short of extensive plastic surgery, do to improve an eighty-year-old face? I was in my fifties at the time, and as unable to put myself in her place as if I had been a teenager. 

I kept my doubts about the make-over to myself, and the next time we spoke on the phone I asked how it had gone. “It was a waste of time,” my mother said. “The woman kept repeating ‘We must bring out your features!’ as she put blush on my cheeks and darkened my eyebrows. I washed it all off when I got home. My features are all still there, thank God, and they don’t need bringing out.” 

The features that enchanted me as a child stayed reassuringly the same as she turned eighty-five and then ninety, delineating to the end what had always been for me the face of love.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Curls vs. Waves

I went on YouTube for advice on my pandemic hair, which was last cut on February 5, 2020, and found dozens of sites that help women to deal with curly hair. And not just deal with it, but enhance it, embrace it, and glory in it. 

I learned a lot. There are no fewer than nine levels of curliness, ranging from loose waves to tight curls. Although I came into this world with Level 3A, “soft curls,” almost a century of blow-drying had reduced me to Level 2A, or “loose waves.” But since I’ve been letting my hair dry naturally during the pandemic, it has breathed a sigh of relief and, all by itself, risen to Level 2B. According to the websites, with just the right kind of care (and products), I could aspire to Level 2C, or “almost curls.” The process sounded kind of like taking care of a plant, so I decided to give it a try. 

But then I realized, from the hundreds of comments on the instructional videos (who knew there were so many women out there worrying about waves vs. curls?) that for a woman with wavy hair to strive for curls can be regarded as a kind of cultural appropriation, and makes her vulnerable to something called “wavy-hair shaming.” 

If you don’t believe me, here is one of the exchanges, with the incendiary bits snuffed out: “Just because tighter curls are now starting to become popular doesn’t mean you wavy types can pop in and try to call your hair curly….” To which a wavy-haired person responds, “You’re the prime example of wavy-hair shaming by a lot of curly-haired people… People with curly hair are self-entitled [horrible individuals] who think their hair is really unique and special...” 

Why am I tormenting myself and you with these trivial tales? It’s because the curly/wavy hair wars spring from the same aspects of human nature that are responsible for the other kind of wars, the ones where people actually die. 

Even if we someday attain racial equality and gender parity, even after we grow to accept transsexual people and people with handicaps, and old people, and people of other nationalities, religions, and socioeconomic levels, we will be sure to latch onto something else to make us feel apart from and superior to the rest of the herd. 

Here is one example, drawn from the supposedly innocent realm of childhood. My first-grade class, most of us barely old enough to tie our shoelaces, is marching single file out of the classroom into the schoolyard, and as we pass the kindergarteners going in the opposite direction, a scornful chant erupts from our ranks: lit-tle ba-bies, lit-tle ba-bies… 

The urge to distinguish, to separate, to draw a line between “us” and “not us” is deeply embedded in our DNA. We are born with a depressing zero-sum mindset: I can only be beautiful/good at math/chosen by God if you are less beautiful, less good at math, and unchosen by God. This may have survival value for some species—if I push my fellow hatchlings out of the nest there will be more worms for me—but it’s threatening to do us humans in. 

The day may come when, out of boredom, the wave/curl warriors will put down their weapons. But then, what? Perhaps pendulous earlobes will emerge as the next badge of beauty, and those with low-hanging lobes will feel proud, and those without will feel miserable, and tug on theirs to make them longer (which will make them subject to earlobe-shaming), until the short-lobes decide to exult in their status and proclaim their superiority, and it’s the long-lobes’ turn to feel bad. 

Me at Level 3A

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Organ Recitals


“Then the podiatrist looked at my little toe and said, ‘Lady, what you have is a…’” But just as things are about to get interesting my friend claps her hand over her mouth and says, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to bore you with an organ recital!” If you are a woman of a certain age, you know that the phrase “organ recital” does not necessarily refer to a performance of Bach in a cathedral. 

Why do so many women feel apologetic about mentioning a wonky knee or a sore neck? Though clearly in distress, they smile through their pain and heroically refuse to talk about “unpleasant things.” Even if their health concerns dominate their inner life, they think that bringing up these issues is a failure of stoicism and an imposition on their listeners.  

I disagree. Not only do I not mind organ recitals, but I often find them entertaining and instructive. There are myriad ways in which the aging body betrays us, and myriad ways in which each individual chooses to deal with these betrayals. I think them all fascinating, and not in a morbid way. 

However, as with the Bach recitals, much depends on the performer. A whiny or self-pitying tone makes me want to change the subject at the earliest opportunity, as does a solo that goes on and on. But if told briefly, with a rueful smile and a sense of irony, these tales have much to offer. They can be informative (who knew that aloe vera is good for arthritis?), and they can also be inspiring. When someone recovering from major surgery mentions that she’s just walked two miles, it puts my own complaints in proportion and gives me the push I need to trudge all the way to the top of the hill. 

Listening to organ recitals is one way in which we can support each other, too. It is no use pretending that our bodies are not often on our minds, and if listening to a friend’s concerns makes her feel less alone, I could do worse than lend her an ear. And when it’s my turn at the instrument, it comforts me to know that I have a sympathetic audience. 

We are embodied creatures, destined to experience pain. Animals instinctively isolate themselves when they are ill, to keep predators from noticing their weakness. But we are verbal, social beings, and the occasional organ recital, done moderately and in chosen company, can be as healing and consoling as listening to Bach.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Ant Jihad (with apologies to E. O. Wilson)

At first, only a few scouts showed up in the mudroom. They ran discreetly along the base of the walls, and I was not alarmed. "It's a sign of spring" I said to the cat Telemann. I have never begrudged the occasional ant a few crumbs from my table. Ants don't frighten me the way spiders do, and I admire their work ethic and organizational talents. But soon those scouts were followed by an entire army, an army that was marching towards the litter box.

The litter that I provide for Telemann is the most ecologically pure on the planet, free from artificial scents, and made of corn. It gives off a mild sweet smell, which is so lovely that when I add fresh handfuls to the box Telemann has been known to take a taste. Now it looked like, along with the rest of America, my ants were addicted to corn-based sugars, and had sent a colonizing army to ensure an endless supply of the stuff.

In the past, I had dealt with ant incursions with a spray of water mixed with a few drops of dish soap. This not only killed the ants, but destroyed the pheromone trail that led others in their wake. It was simple; it was green; and it always worked.

I happened to have a bottle of the solution in the cabinet under the sink. I gave it a good shake, and sprayed along the ant column. The little creatures scurried out of the way, trying to avoid the deadly spray, then curled up in agony and eventually dwindled to little black motionless specks, and I felt like a vengeful deity wreaking havoc on hapless mortals. It was a miniature version of the kind of spectacle that I cannot bear to watch on TV.

The soapy solution worked for a while, but soon new battalions of ants arrived, and were making off with golden nuggets of corn litter. I sprayed more abundantly this time, leaving little slippery pools on the linoleum, then refilled my bottle and resprayed. But back in the nest the ant draft boards were calling up fresh recruits, and the army kept coming.

I googled DIY ant repellents. The techniques ranged from spreading coffee grounds on the ant trails, to smothering the insects under a paste of cornstarch and water. But the most popular solutions involved the use of essential oils, especially peppermint.

I happened to have a bottle of peppermint oil left over from an unsuccessful attempt to discourage field mice in pre-Telemann days. These being desperate times, I ignored the instructions to dilute the oil with water or witch hazel, and sprinkled the concentrated oil directly on the ants.

As with the soapy water, the results were instantaneous, at least for the ants that came in contact with the oil. The mudroom was now littered with tiny cadavers, which I left in the hope of demoralizing the troops, but more still kept coming. I sprinkled more oil. 

“What on earth is that smell?” my spouse asked. “It makes my eyes water.” Not only did the entire house smell like a bag of cough drops, but I was starting to worry about the stuff’s effect on Telemann’s willingness to use the litter box. When he was a kitten and I was trying to keep him away from a certain house plant, I had bought a bottle of cat repellent. Its main ingredient was peppermint oil.

If the ants were attracted by the corn-based litter, the obvious solution was to switch to a different litter. But I didn’t want a different litter. I wanted to stick with my ecologically pure brand, and I didn’t want to disturb Telemann’s bathroom habits.

I returned to the DIY sites, some of which sang the praises of white vinegar. I happened to have a gallon of it, which I had bought in a vain attempt to control static cling in the laundry. I dumped the soap solution out of the spray bottle and replaced it with vinegar. The ants were no longer marching in columns, but had broken ranks and were crisscrossing the mudroom floor, raping and pillaging. The ones dispatched to colonize the kitchen had reached the cabinets, in search of the toaster.

I flooded the mudroom and the kitchen with vinegar. Again, several ants perished on the spot, but more took their place, ready to give their lives for corn litter. Now the house smelled like a salad bowl. I was opening windows to air out the place when a friend came by. I apologized for the smell and told her my sorry tale. “Why don’t you just get some ant bait?” she said.

And so I did. I hid six cookie-shaped, non-green, non-DIY bait dispensers in various spots in the mudroom and kitchen. Within two days, the ants were gone.

Ant bait consists of an attractant that is also a poison. The ants carry it back into their nest, where eventually it exterminates the colony. The EPA allows the manufacturers to keep the inert ingredients secret from the consumer. Who knows what environmental outrage my ant baits perpetrated? Perhaps a titmouse ate a poisoned ant, and got a stomach ache, or even died.

Should I have persevered with the oil and vinegar? Should I have switched to a non-organic litter? Should I have learned to coexist with my ants, and if so, how bad would things have gotten? Would they finally have had their fill of cat litter and left of their own accord, or would they have turned our cottage into a giant ant hill, like those termite mounds in Africa?

The alacrity with which I jumped on the ant bait solution has humbled me, and softened slightly my attitude towards pesticide-spraying farmers and wolf-shooting ranchers. I still don’t approve of what they’re doing, but I now know that there lurks in my supposedly green heart the same hot rage that fuels their abuses.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021


My mother has just rung the bell of my paternal grandparents' apartment in Barcelona when she spots a smudge of chocolate on my chin. She whips a handkerchief out of her purse, spits on it, and rubs frantically at the spot. As the peculiar smell of her saliva drying on my skin starts to fade, the door opens and my tiny black-clad grandmother, tottering in her high heels, ushers us into the apartment. She gives me a kiss, and I feel the soft, almost invisible down on her cheek, and smell her special smell: toasted almonds. Why my city grandmother should smell of toasted almonds doesn't make sense to me, because it is my country grandmother, my mother's mother, who cracks and toasts the almonds from her trees and sends them to us by train in the fall, to eat along with the raisins that she dries in her attic.

Barcelona smells of diesel, with its citrusy undertones. The fish market smells of fish and wet floors. My parents' bedroom smells of the abominable camphor and menthol salve that my mother rubs on my chest when I suffer one of my endless colds, and of the lavender eau de cologne that she applies to my temples to relieve my frequent stomach upsets.

But I am never sick in the summer. We spend it on my maternal grandparents' farm, which provides an a three-month olfactory orgy.  Guided by my nose, I sniff and snuffle my way from house, to yard, to stable, to fields. There is the hot, dry smell of the chicken coop, and the moister, lower notes of the pig house. There is the metallic smell of the dust on the roads when it begins to rain, and the rancid smell of the sheep as they are driven home from pasture in the late afternoon. 

My  mother and her sisters are forever passing judgment on smells--disgusting! (of the manure pile); delicious! (of the sun-warmed melons from my grandfather's garden). Unlike them, I am an impartial observer of odors, treating them simply as data points to help me navigate the world. The only smell I despise is the acrid stench of the Flit that my grandmother sprays in the dining room to kill flies before each meal.

I am strongly attuned to the individual smells of the grownups in my family. The American devotion to deodorant and daily showers has not yet penetrated European culture, and everybody past puberty possesses copious underarm hair. This gives each of my relatives a signature bouquet that is as much a part of their persona as the shape of their nose or the alignment of their teeth. I do not find it unpleasant.

My olfactory connoisseurship reaches new heights one day when I come across my aunt folding a stack of laundered undershirts belonging to my father, my grandfather, and my uncle. They are all white and  sleeveless, identical but for a red initial sewn inside the neckline. Showing off, I tell my aunt that, if I close my eyes, I can tell which shirt belongs to whom by its smell. 

"But the shirts just came off the clothesline," she says. "They don't have any smell." I assure her that they do. "Go ahead, then" she laughs, and hands me a shirt. I squeeze my eyes shut, sniff, and identify the shirt as belonging to my grandfather.

"That was just coincidence," she says. "Smell this one." I correctly attribute the second shirt to my uncle. The game goes on until we run out of undershirts. My aunt goes to find my mother. "Your daughter," she says, "is part hunting dog."

Other than the undershirt game that I play with my aunt, I keep my olfactory adventures to myself, and ask no questions, especially about one smell that I find puzzling. When I raise my arms to embrace my mother around her waist, and press my face against her belly, I sometimes perceive an odor that reminds me of the smell of fresh sardines, and whose source will remain a mystery for the rest of my childhood.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Not Yet

It may be my Catholic upbringing--suffer first on this earth, then get your reward in heaven--but I believe that only those who have endured a northern winter can truly enjoy spring. It's not that I hate Vermont winters. I would never chosen to move here if I did, and I confess to looking a few millimeters down my nose at those who flee to warmer places at the first sign of snow. 

Vermont winters are beautiful in so many ways--the muted shades of the landscape after the visual brouhaha of autumn, the frigid morning air that wakes up the very  marrow of your bones, the roads empty of tourists. When the days grow short I retreat indoors, along with the wild creatures. Book in hand, the cat blinking on my lap, the dog dreaming by the (gas) fireplace, I am as contented as a chipmunk in her hole.  But by mid-February all this hygge begins to pall. I have been stoic for months. I have not lapsed into bitterness or self-pity. I have sat before my light therapy box every morning, and poured extra vinegar into the washing machine to minimize static cling. Now I deserve--no, the universe owes me--spring.

I'm not asking for those clichés of the full-blown season, lilacs and daffodils. I'd be grateful just to be able to go outside with only a coat on, instead of coat, hat, scarf, gloves, mittens, heavy socks, and yaktracks strapped to my boots. I'd be thrilled to rediscover the humble pleasure of walking while looking at the trees and the sky, instead of looking at the ground, on the watch for black ice. And, after months of hearing only the cawing of crows (which I nevertheless appreciate as a sign of life in the otherwise dead landscape), it would cheer my soul to hear a little brown bird singing at the top of a tall, bare tree.

What makes a northern spring so magical is not out there in the physical world, but rather inside us, in our human nature. As the troubadours, the Victorians, and the Church knew, we humans mostly hanker after what we can't have: the princess in the tower, the ankle beneath the petticoat, truffles during Lent. The grass-is-greener principle is ingrained in our neurons, alas: after prolonged exposure to a pleasurable stimulus the delight begins to fade, and we look around for something different.

Therefore, thank heaven for the four seasons, Nature's built-in mechanism to keep us happy and on our toes. Grateful as I am for every glimpse of green--and there aren't many around here at the moment--I know full well how tired I will be of the omnipresent greenery (not for nothing is this state named after les verts monts), the heat, and the humidity, and how I will crave the golds and reds and chill of autumn. And when the leaves are gone, and "stick season" is upon us, I will wait for the first snow, feel disappointed when it melts, and long for the time when the landscape is entirely covered in white. 

And then when the days start to get longer, I will look outside in the morning, frowning and tapping my foot, muttering about the blasted weather and wondering when I can put away the humidifier that hums in our living room from October through March and has to be refilled, it seems, every five minutes (not yet). Wondering when I can throw my parka in the washing machine and hang it in the closet until next fall (not yet).Wondering when I can take the three geraniums that I have watered and misted and kept under a light out to the porch (not yet!).  

This is so not-Zen, I know. Maybe it explains why Buddhism is popular in places without seasons, like India and California. Here, practically next door to the pole, Nature herself gives us permission to desire, at certain times of the year, what is still in the future. As soon as spring arrives for good, I'll gladly go back to being fully in the present. But not yet.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Little Phobias

 The pandemic is abating, the world is slowly opening up, and for almost everyone this is great news. But for hermits, introverts, highly sensitive persons, and molluscoid types like me, the news is mixed. Yes, it's good to be able to buy a loaf of bread at the store without putting my life at risk. And it's good to know that I could, if I wanted to, have a professional cut the hair that, in the words of the musical, has grown "down to here, down to there, down to where it stops by itself."

But for those who identify at least in part with oysters, clams, and mussels, the quarantine brought definite advantages. As everything became forbidden, a delicious freedom invaded our lives. It was lovely to wake up day after day, month after month, without commitments to clutter our mental horizon. It was a relief to be spared the responsibility of making decisions about social obligations. Pascal said, "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." Now we had permission to do just that.

But not everything was rosy in my pandemic retreat. After a while, the shell inside which I huddled began to feel constricting. I was brought up to believe that intelligent people are never bored ("Think!" my father would advise whenever I complained that there was nothing to do). Nevertheless, there was a limit to the amount of entertainment available within the walls of my cranium. What Jung called "the circumambulation of the self" was starting to make me queasy. 

Even more distressing, I noticed that, during the rare in-person conversations in which I engaged, I was losing the ability to respond quickly to what was coming out of other people's mouths. Words escaped me at hitherto unseen rates. I would get tangled in the thickets of a relative clause and be unable to find my way out again. 

needed outside stimulation. I longed to feel the wayward breezes of other people's ideas. My mental gears groaned for the oil of human contact. Inside my clamshell, my legs were cramping; my chest was tightening; I was stifling. I had all the symptoms of claustrophobia.

Of course, my shell was not a prison cell. Within reason, I was allowed a certain amount of freedom. Well-masked and distanced, I could walk the icy roads with a friend. I could make brief excursions to the grocery store. I could even get in the car and head for the wide open spaces. But as the pandemic wore on, I became reluctant to do any of these things. Rather than fetch that loaf of bread, I would make do with the ancient tortilla discovered at the bottom of the freezer. It was too much effort to make myself heard and understood from behind my double masks, so I took fewer walks with friends. And I avoided car trips except when compelled by an urgent need that Amazon could not fulfill.

Along with claustrophobia, I also had agoraphobia.

So now, as gates fly open and the peoples rejoice, all I feel is conflict. Caught between the desire to burst out of my clamshell, and fear of the outside world, I am an apprehensive, undecided, spineless mollusc.

I know what you're supposed to do about phobias: you desensitize yourself gradually. If you're scared of spiders, you start by looking at pictures of them. Then you observe a live one at a distance. Gradually you get closer and closer, until you turn into one of those people who trap spiders under a glass and deposit them outdoors, murmuring endearments. Following that model, and now that the weather is easing, I should lengthen my walks, take longer drives, maybe actually go somewhere I want to go (but where?).

It will take time and effort to get rid of my fears, but it will be worth it, I tell myself--that is, unless the dreaded variants take off and I have to scuttle back into my clamshell. My emotional life is starting to resemble the game of whack-a-mole: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and now, the mother of all phobias: the fear of uncertainty. But I'll probably just have to learn to live with that one.