“That’s vulgar,” my mother would say. Oh. Well then. That settled it; I wouldn’t dream of doing anything vulgar.
My mother died when I was twenty-three, before we had fully recovered from my adolescence. I grope in the dark to understand her. Much of what I think I know is probably wrong.
I was reminiscing with my sister-in-law, Esther. “And what’s wrong with vulgar?” she said. “It just means common.” Though I was past fifty, and had long since shattered every one of Mother's taboos, I had never questioned that vulgarity was shameful. It was a powerful moment, and I began thinking of all the things that Mother considered vulgar.
Dangling earrings. Pants worn with high heels. Bikinis. Clashing colors. Chartreuse. Fuchsia. I was in 7th grade when I got my first sexy bathing suit: an orange tank with broad fuchsia stripes up the sides. Everyone knew orange and pink clashed, as did red and pink, green and blue. I have to assume I chose the bathing suit, and I admire Mother for buying it. She was encouraging autonomy. Or maybe she was just tired.
The word Mom. In 1955 Phillip Wylie coined the term momism in Generation of Vipers, an astonishingly misogynistic (and extremely popular) book. Mother absorbed his loathing, and I can see her mouth stretched in an exaggerated O as she spoke the word Mom with contempt. As children we called her Mummy, nicely British, therefore not vulgar. (My father was an extreme anglophile.)
New York accents, nasal voices, loud female voices, crude language. “Gentle voices,” my father would say, if Luli and I spoke too loudly, and he frequently spoke of Esther’s melodious voice. I never heard "shit" until I was 12, and was astounded some years later when I realized Mother knew the word.
Carmen Miranda, Las Vegas, blondes. Ginger Rogers was only saved from vulgarity by her elegant pairing with Fred Astaire.
Fried foods, chewing gum. “It’s like a cow chewing her cud.” And Mother would do a wonderful cud-chewing imitation.
Fat women in stretch pants. Fat women. Fat. My father felt fat women were a personal insult, as they apparently did not care to attract him. My sister Luli says Mother was terrified of becoming fat. Luli was fat for many years, distressing my father, as she was his favorite.
I learned the concept so well I can apply it to things my mother never mentioned. Tap dancing is vulgar (except for Fred Astaire); ballet is not. Why weren’t Broadway musicals vulgar, full of flashy colors and blondes? Probably because my mother and father enjoyed going to an evening of dinner and theater in the city.
It’s hard to know where my father’s thoughts ended and my mother’s began. The only subject on which I know they disagreed was Eleanor Roosevelt. My mother admired her; my father dismissed her. She was homely, and her voice was horrid.
Mother was the daughter of a distinguished professor, whose specialty was southern agricultural history. Professors were respected, but ill-paid, and her mother taught piano. Mother grew up in the south, went to college at George Washington, and belonged to Kappa Delta. She dropped out after her junior year to marry my father, a Jew from New York. He was six years older than she.
Dad was ashamed and contemptuous of his father, but he was proud of his mother. His father was an entrepreneurial merchant whose business failed, a man full of life and bonhomie. Her family were sugar barons in Colombia, where she was raised rich and sent to a Jewish boarding school in London.
I believe Dad was quite young when he began denying he was Jewish. He dropped his father's name and took his mother's, changing his surname from Jacobs to Eder. He was over 90 when he told me my mother’s parents didn’t like him because he was Jewish. It was the first time I had ever heard him acknowledge it.
My father was successful as an international corporate lawyer, and my parents lived the high life in South America and Long Island. But Esther once described my father as a man standing outside a beautiful house, with his nose pressed against the window.
I think my mother also felt like an outsider. Yearning to be not just respectable, but aristocratic, my parents had to guard against any taint of the vulgar.
I try to find a common thread in the things my mother identified as vulgar. Anything flagrantly sexual was certainly vulgar. Anything which suggested Jewish. Anything from poor southern culture, which would include anything Black.
The other day in Cordele, Georgia I met a woman in the motel breakfast buffet. She was a very fat woman, with bleached blonde hair. She told me she is raising five foster children - a 17-year-old whom she’s had from birth, two three-year-olds, and two four-year-olds. They live out in the country, so there’s plenty of room to play. She loves having foster children. Her face glowed as she talked of them.
She, her husband and some in-laws were on their way from Michigan to Florida to take a Caribbean cruise, and she was very excited. I asked if the children were in respite care. “Oh no, my daughter and her husband are keeping them.”
My mother would consider modern-day cruises vulgar, though ocean crossings in the grand style of the first half of the twentieth century were fine. Yet Mother valued kindness above all. Would she see past the stretch jeans, the dyed hair, to the generous heart and patient spirit of this woman? I like to think she would.
NEXT WEEK: The Sound of a Train
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