Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad Taste, Good Feeling

"CHINA EMPORIUM" the sign shouts in huge red capital letters. We've passed this place half a dozen times on our way to Nicosia, but last Saturday, longing for decent Chinese food, we finally cracked and decided to investigate.

"No way is that really going to be a Chinese food market," said my husband, the pessimist. But hope springs eternal, and after a few disappointing experiences at expensive restaurants that served stale chicken-fried rice, predictably bland chop suey, and won ton soup straight out of a can, we were ready to try anything.

As soon as we stepped through the entrance, all thoughts of black bean chicken, bok choy with oyster sauce, and mabo dofu were quickly abandoned. We weren't in a Chinese supermarket, we were in the Turkish equivalent of a five-and-ten. Instead of noodles and tea, we had plastic Santa Clauses drinking Coca Colas; simpering angels made out of wire and feathers; lamp shades done in glittery purple. We went from aisle to aisle with our mouths open in horror as we saw serving dishes encrusted with plastic sea shells, huge plastic puppy dog statues with giant pleading eyes, and velvet paintings depicting dancing ladies in skimpy costumes.

I've seen some tacky stuff in my time, but nothing to rival this. There were things so awful that we actually had to go up and touch them: great, cumbersome combination paperweight-and-clocks filled with bright shiny heart-shaped confetti; ashtrays so horrifyingly tacky they almost took your breath away. I found myself amazed: here we are teetering on the brink of a world depression. The prices of food and household goods are steadily increasing. Given that, you would think that schlock like this would never have a hope of finding a home. And yet, people were buying freely. Shopping carts were being filled. Hideous items were being picked up and fondled lovingly.

My husband and his brothers have a thing about exchanging tacky Christmas presents, so he was in heaven. "I've GOT to have this," he almost wept, nudging me. I had to cover my mouth with my hand: he was holding a plastic clock radio in the shape of a mosque with Arabic writing across the face. A metal-lined depression in the top gave me pause until I saw the grooves along the perimeter, each one the width of a cigarette. Yes, it defied belief, but it really was a mosque-shaped ashtray, clock, and radio all in one.

"Mom, come and take a look at this!" one of my daughters hissed, pointing to a giant-sized twin kitten figurine. And suddenly I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Because those kittens brought back sweet-sour memories: I grew up around junk like this, and as a child, I thought it was beautiful.

My mother grew up in rural poverty. She and her family counted themselves lucky when there was food on the table. Every summer, my mother and her brothers and sisters went without shoes. All their clothes, handmade by their mother, were well patched and mended, generally hand-me-downs from older siblings. Doctors were only summoned when the patient was near death; my mother never went to a dentist until she was in her twenties.

Given the family's lack of money, anything store-bought was seen as automatically superior to its handmade equivalent, and my mother never got over this prejudice. I can remember going past a bin of cheap plastic airplanes in a toy store when I was ten; my mother picked one up and fingered it lovingly. "Do you like this?"

I frowned. "No. It's cheap-o."

My mother shook her head sadly as she put the airplane back into the bin. "You know, I would have done anything for this when I was your age."

Although my mother was educated, she never developed artistic sophistication. Our house was furnished with items purchased with S & H green stamps. Over our tatty green sofa hung a luridly-colored print in a cheap gilt frame, entitled 'Moon Over Capri', my mother's pride and joy. On top of our television sat a pair of ceramic Siamese cats with plastic aqua-colored eyes. This decoration could be plugged in; when it was, the cats' eyes glowed. We kids had a high opinion of this. I'm not sure how old I was when I realized how hopelessly tacky it was -- and felt ashamed.

I felt ashamed now too, but for different reasons: as a stroppy adolescent, I can remember making mocking comments about my mother's highly prized light-up Siamese cats. I wanted to distance myself from her kitschy taste -- to show that I knew what real art was.

"Aren't they awful?" my daughter whispered, pointing to the cats. And yes, they really, really were.

I saw an elderly woman pick up a pair of ceramic puppies covered with hideous spray-on fuzz. I watched her as she turned this aberration over in her hands, looking for a price tag. It must have been within her means: she put the puppies into her shopping cart, a look of quiet satisfaction on her face.

"The kittens are okay," I said to my daughter. "But I've seen better. You can't plug them in and their eyes don't light up."

She's lucky we made it out of the store without a velvet painting.


Kim Ayres said...

My brother gave us a "Wedding Bears" snow globe when my wife and I got married. He seemed genuinely pleased he'd got us somethng tasteful.

Charles Gramlich said...

We had some of that tacky stuff growing up, but I didn't care. Some of it was pretty cute. A novelty for sure. Your mother's story reminds me, I told Josh pretty much the same thing when he was little a few times. I would have killed for that when I was your age.

Travis Erwin said...

My dad once proudly displayed a Jim Beam whiskey decanter in the shape of the New Orleans Superdome. In the living room no less. That was pretty tacky.

Phil said...

The problem when you put tat and memories together is: you get nostalgia. Then, there's no going back. No matter how hard we've trained ourselves to be modern sophisticates, those burnt in memories will always win through.

As ever, enjoyed the read.

Hope all is well.


Robin said...

I'm not sure why, but that story made me get all teary eyed. Your sweet mom with her taste for store bought things, I think.

I used to buy all sorts of tacky stuff with my babysitting money when I was younger. Nothing as cool as a mosque/radio/alarm clock, though. I'm sure I would have bought it, had it been available in Newton, Massachusetts.

Merry Monteleone said...


I love your stories, this one made we want to hug your mom.

And I'd love to visit that shop. My cart would be full.

Carolie said...

You really do have a gift for making your readers (or at least me!) laugh and cry at the same time. Thank you for this lovely story!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Aw - I can picture it! I love snow globes... We got a huge plaster picture frame from one of our neighbors in Japan. It was covered with big plastic green and yellow daisies. I treasure it.

Charles -- I'm always saying that to my kids too. They take for granted things I'd have given my eyeteeth for. I find myself wondering what things their kids will have that they don't now, but my mind boggles; we seem to have reached saturation point.

Travis -- I'm trying to picture that and for some reason I can't. But you have to wonder, who designs these things? Do they lie in bed wondering how to fashion a superdome into a decanter just like we lie in bed and try to work out plots?

Phil -- That is so true. When I think about some of the Christmas ornaments we had, all I can remember is how beautiful they were. I KNOW they were tacky now -- I've learned that much -- but when I was a child, they had incredible magic. It makes me feel so wistful, remembering. It's not the things itself, it's the memories they're instilled with.

Robin -- I got all teary-eyed writing this myself, so I'm glad I wasn't the only one! I'm also thrilled that there are other collectors of ticky-tack out there. My husband is strongly considering going back for the mosque/clock radio combination.

Merry -- (Sniff -- thank you. My mother would have hugged you back!) We got some Wrigley's chewing gum hair clips, some tinsel, a sewing kit, a set of chopsticks, two candlesticks, some stationery, and some soap shaped like flowers. And we came SO close to buying a certain clock radio...

Carolie said...

p.s. -- Your story made me think of a tacky piece from my past. My grandmother had an odd set of two pieces. The first piece is a heavy, base-metal "hollow branch" into which one can stick false flowers, with a small, fat bird (a sparrow?) perched on the side. The second part of the set is simply a second fat bird. It's heavy, and was gilded at some point in its tacky life...if it sounds as if it might possibly be attractive, I haven't managed to describe its ridiculous, sappy, faux-Victorian-ness well enough.

As an adult, I find it incredibly tacky, but as a child, my cousin and I would play with the branchless golden bird in endless scenes of our favorite pretend game, "The Adventures of Rose-Red, Snow-White and the Golden Chickie."

When my grandmother died, twenty years ago, the set disappeared. In 2005, I got married. There was one oddly heavy box from my cousin -- inside I found the Golden Chickie set. I wept and laughed, as my husband tried to figure out why in the hell ANYONE would give us such an odd, tacky gift.

The Golden Chickie and his mate on her branch now reside in my living room, proudly displayed with other treasured mementos, and I don't care what anyone thinks!

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Somehow our posts crossed!

I can just picture that fake bird on its glorious branch, and I should have known you would understand! Anything that was involved in our childhood games becomes magic, no matter its value or lack of such.

In fact, our set of plug-in Siamese cats got broken when we were teenagers and my mother was genuinely upset over this. She saved carefully for another set just like it and was thrilled to find that it was still available. My sister inherited this set and to this day it sits on top of her television. The last time we visited her, she asked me if I minded that she'd gotten the cats instead of me. I told her it was all hers, but I gave the cats a pat on the head before I left. And I love it that my sister feels guilty for having acquired this treasure.

Meg Wiviott said...

My mother sounds a lot like your mother. She grew up in East Texas during the depression. She outgrew her love for all things tacky, so when I was a kid we only had her best loved items in the house - a set of three candlesticks made from overturned babyfood jars, spray painted avocado green, harvest gold, and rancid red - you know, '70's colors.

Sadly, she developed Alzheimer's in her 60's and her love of tacky things returned. She had a electric fireplace that all four of her grandchildren loved. When my sister and I cleaned out her house we threw the electric fireplace away telling our children that it was broken. (Needless to say, neither one of us wanted it in our houses!) They were all sad. Years later the truth came out, that we had thrown it away. Our grown children were furious with us. It was their clearest memories of their grandmother.

I'm not sure what the lesson is in that - but I'm still glad I don't have it in my house!

Anne Spollen said...

What a nice story -- your mom sounds like a sweetheart, and this anecdote connects three generations. Very touching.

Carole said...

This was a wonderful Christmas gift. Thank you. So filled with memories.

Charlie said...

The junk you mentioned in the China Emporium would sell like hotcakes in Phoenix, the garage sale capital of the world. Please send me a gross of those gross clock radios as soon as you can.

And you made me tear up too because we all had our tacky treasures, crappy stuff that was priceless, had a special meaning known only to us, and most of all, made us happy.

Mary Witzl said...

Meg -- Those candlesticks sound great, but I can't see how they would work. Were the bottoms of the babyfood jars concave? And I love the fact that your grown-up children regretted the loss of that electric fireplace (though I'm sure I'd have thrown it out too, for what it's worth).

Although I remember my mother's tacky stuff with great fondness, when I was a teenager, I snubbed it terribly. Funnily enough, the things of hers I remember loving were the handmade quilts she and her mother made. She could not see the attraction, of course: they were old rustic things, made by hand...

Anne -- Thank you. Sometimes I wish that the three generations had just had a chance to meet. I'm sure good lessons could have been passed on.

Carole -- I wish you'd share your Christmas tat stories with me! And I wish I could get on your blog, too. How are you, and how is your writing?

Charlie -- What a great thing it would be, selling clock radio ashtrays in Phoenix! I'm hoping my brothers-in-law will be as pleased with their gifts; the postage is going to be pretty steep.

And I'm so glad that others have these memories too. I worried that I was the only one who had fond memories of tacky Christmas junk and S & H greenstamp goods.

Meg Wiviott said...

The baby food jars were inverted and stacked one atop the other. There must have been some other kind of jars involved - probably Miracle Whip! The candle was on the top, though I can't remember how it stayed there.

AnneB said...

Photos, Mary...where are the photos?!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Meg -- I like the sound of those candlesticks, but they sound like they'd be tough to make. And painted with psychedelic 70s colors? Wow! I recycled all my baby food jars as spice containers, but your mother's candlesticks are far more creative.

AnneB -- Sigh...I've got to get more techno-savvy. I do have a camera on my cell phone, but the blue-tooth it has is somehow not compatible with blogger (I learned this when I took the photo of the Bayram cake). And you've got to be impressed that I actually know what blue-tooth is!

If we get the mosque clock radio, I will try to get my daughter to take a picture and I'll try and post it. If I hadn't actually seen this with my own eyes, I'm not sure I'd believe it myself.

Barbara Martin said...

The only tacky thing I can recall from childhood is having a gold and bronze coloured parade horse clock that I loved dearly. Finally, the wiring gave up the ghost and out it went.

Ello said...

That was such a poignant story you had me tearing up. I make fun of my Mom's taste all the time. I should stop. Although hers is less cheap and more ornate and gaudy. shudder.

Still, I loved this story.

Kara said...

ohmigod...i would've bought everything in there. velvet paintings? did they really have velvet paintings? and you bought nothing? come ON.

Leanne said...

Superb writing, as usual. I love the way you brought it back to the store at the end. I felt like I was in the aisles, too.
Have you seen that movie called "Outsourced?" Takes place mostly in India. You would really like it!
Love, Leanne

Kanani said...

The tastes between family members differs greatly. My own mother had an appalling inability to handle color. Imagine the horror of my father coming home to a bedroom with orange and pink shag carpet! This of course, went with the dark "mediterranean" colored (brown) furnishings.

But of course, her aesthetic was a reflection of some emotional response. Your mother's love of those cats --she was probably fascinated by them, got a kick out of seeing those eyes light up. I only HOPE she still has them. God Mary, you should insist on having the willed to you.

Anyway, one person's kitsch is another person's feel good touchstone. You never know...

The Quoibler said...

This is a beautiful story, Mary.

You know, as my son, husband and I were decorating the Christmas tree this year, we uncovered a host of hideous bulbs from my childhood. Very '70s (and some from the '60s that were just handed down).

Guess which ones my son wanted to hang up? :)

Our tree is more gorgeous, fun and classy because of those god-awful trinkets.

Much love to you and your family,


Marcia said...

How I remember my mom licking the stamps by the sheet and putting them in the little booklet. Our house was a mixture of cheap knick-knacks and Grandma's antiques. I never cared for my mother's taste, finding it too cutesy and kitschy. What floors me is that now that she's in an apartment and select pieces are arranged in a smaller space where you can focus on them -- I really like her furniture!

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- Did you put up a fuss? I would have. I used to have a whole drawer full of useless things that I could not bear to throw away. A gold and bronze parade horse with faulty lighting would have fit right in.

Ello -- Just wait until you are older! I still remember some of the things my mother admired with a mixture of amusement and horror, but as I age, the more like her I become. Can't see myself with a light-up Siamese ornament, but I'll never say never.

Kara -- Let me tell you, it was a veritable Aladdin's cave of kitsch treasure. While we were there, we kept trying to describe the items we were looking at, we were so amazed by them. They defied description. We purchased modestly, but I suspect you'd have gone wild!

Leanne -- Thank you for that kind compliment. I haven't seen 'Outsourced,' but now I want to. We have a hard time finding some movies here, but I'll look out for it.

Kanani -- An orange and pink shag carpet? I KNOW I've seen one of these at some relative's house! My mother has been gone for many years, but the Siamese Cats are now proudly displayed at my sister's home in Arcadia. She has inherited my mother's naive appreciation of kitsch. And she and your mother would absolutely see eye to eye on home decoration color schemes.

Angelique -- Your Christmas tree sounds great. We had whole boxes of tacky decorations as well (fifties, mainly, as I recall) and I really regret that we could not bring them with us. That is one of the things about our lifestyle that is rather sad -- almost all our possessions had to stay behind.

Marcia -- Did your mother collect blue chip stamps as well? We had both, but I think green stamps were her favorite -- she liked their catalog better, I believe. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who remembers trading stamps, though!

Gaining Back My Life said...

I enjoyed your label for this post, particularly...

Mary Witzl said...

GBML -- Thank you! I've just gone back and put in the right accents; my French is rusty, to say the least.

My daughters begged us to go back to the China Emporium today, but we were too busy Christmas shopping at other places. Part of me is glad we didn't; part of me almost wishes we'd gone!