Thursday, 8 December 2011

White Elephants, Orange Plastic Cats

My mother had a keen wit, a love of good books, reading, languages, and life-long learning, and a generally impeccable sense of justice. She had a number of faults too of course, and one of them was a perverse talent for unwittingly picking the last thing in the world you would want as a gift. Having grown up in the age before plastics were widely used, my mother never got over her fascination for Mellmac, Tupperware, and just about any other plastic product you could mention. "It never wears out!" she used to say, when I expressed my loathing for polyester. "You can drop it and it won't chip or break," she would say when I longed to eat off china instead of Tupperware. "Termites can't eat it!" was her standard line when I wondered why we couldn't buy more furniture made of wood. Over the years, she never quite learned what I liked, so I accumulated a collection of things I could never use or develop an aesthetic appreciation for. I had pink and white keychain decorated with kittens, a hideous lace-trimmed yellow pantsuit made of double-knit polyester that gives me nightmares to this day ("It was on special offer!"), a woven plastic sewing kit, and any number of horrific accessories I quickly consigned to my bottom drawer.

But the one item that really gave me pause was a clear orange plastic cat she sent me one Christmas. My friends and I puzzled over this piece of schlock for days. We'd never seen anything remotely like it and none of us could figure out what it was. We knew that despite its green rhinestone eyes and glittery ears, the cat's function could not be purely decorative: its paws were raised head-height to form an exaggerated W, suggesting that it was for holding something. But what? Rings or other jewelery would not fit over the plastic paws. When I finally got up the courage to ask my mother, she told me that it was something you rested your glasses on when you weren't using them. "But I don't wear glasses," I reminded her. "Well you will someday. And it was on special offer!"

For years, that orange plastic cat rattled around in my bottom drawer. After my mother died, I couldn't bear to part with it; the cat was duly packed into various boxes and moved from flat to flat in San Francisco and New York (though it stayed in Southern California during my second year in Japan where I didn't have room for most of my possessions). During my last year of graduate school, however, I did a major-clean out when my housemates and I had a garage sale, and I decided that the cat had to go.

On the day of the sale, I put out boxes of books, used clothes and bedding, pots and crockery, my seashell collection, some Japanese dolls, and several sticks of furniture. Without much hope, I added the orange plastic cat to this lot, along with other junk I was pretty sure would not sell. The Japanese dolls went first, followed by the seashell collection. The books got snapped up, as did the crockery and furniture, and so did the bedding and clothes. In the end, I was left with an iffy crock-pot and a few threadbare shirts -- and the orange plastic cat.

My housemates and I were just about to pack up our unsold items when a little lady from down the road walked past our house. I'd seen this woman a few times before; a recent Indochinese refugee, she spoke no English and was usually accompanied by a grandchild or two, who interpreted for her. On this occasion she was by herself. She was almost past our house when she suddenly stopped and stared. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and as she moved towards our table of rejects, I could see the longing in her eyes. I knew it had to be the crock-pot, which worked, but not terribly well. I decided I would let her have it for free; it would be too hard to explain what was wrong with it. The woman stared at my table of rejects and looked up at me shyly. "How much?" she whispered. And I noticed that she was pointing to the orange plastic cat.

"Fifteen cents," I told her. The woman's eyes widened. She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a few coins, and held out her hand. "Okay?" she asked in a breathless whisper. When I nodded, she actually snatched the cat up, as though fearful I would realize my mistake and change my mind. Reaching into a plastic shopping bag, she pulled something out to show me: an identical plastic orange cat.

Selling my neighbor my mother's orange plastic cat was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had. There is nothing like pleasing someone else by getting rid of a piece of junk. And it taught me something else: no matter how unwanted something is, no matter how dubious its function or seemingly eclectic its appeal, there is bound to be somebody somewhere who will snap it up and treasure it. Which gives me hope for my  manuscripts.

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20 comments:

Lisa Shafer said...

Hilarious. :)

(And I always hated polyester, too.)

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

This was such a fun read, and I so recognized your mother's "philosophy" about products and buying things. Surely this wonderful piece of writing could sell to a magazine! Have you ever tried selling to mags?

Marcia said...

Funny, my mother was just the opposite. If it was new (Mellmac, Tupperware, Teflon) it must be inferior. She hated plastic, whereas I thought it was progressive. :) My BFF ate on Mellmac at home; why did I have to eat on china? And get yelled at if something should break at dishwashing time? But I drew the line on both knickknacks (which she loved) and polyester. Ugh.

Vijaya said...

I confess that I'm a little bit like your mother. I too, have collected several plastic things over the years because they are practically indestructible and when you have kids that tend to break everything eventually, I appreciate this quality of plastic. IN fact, I have a set of 3 plastic shelves that refuse to break which my husband cannot stand. They are going in the attic to store our extra sundries. We bought a very nice bookcase to keep our games and art supplies. It looks very nice.

And you are very right to note that someone else's junk can be another's treasure. I just about snorted my tea when I read your mother bought the cat for the future glasses you would need. I'm still laughing over that.

Charles Gramlich said...

A great lesson for us all. One person's trash is another's treasure.

Ruth Kelly said...

We used plastic because it never broke and we never replaced it but by the time I had used it for umpteen years, I was so sick of it that I got rid of it. Now, I use glass or anything but plastic even though it breaks. Loved your blog.

Mirka Breen said...

Lovely, Mary.
Our mothers would have liked each other. Mine has moved on to play with the angels in that great big discount store in the sky.

Carole said...

My mother loved polyester and plastic too. My mother would have bought the cat. No matter how many yard sales she went to, she always bought the least usable items and was just tickled by them. My dad on the other hand bought every non-working typewriter he could find. He didn't fix them. He just bought them. Oh well, I am sure my kids will be laughing amongst each other sooner or later about what I put a premium on.

Adrienne said...

It must have been that women's lucky day -not one orange cat, but two! So funny.

Anne M Leone said...

Love this! Especially in the lead-up to the Christmas shopping mania...

Little story for you (though don't tell my mother-in-law, she still doesn't know!). So my mother-in-law bought me a giant fuzzy stuffed duck for Easter one year (never mind that she's Jewish). It was absolutely adorable, but huge, and our dog was convinced it was the best chew toy ever. So I threw it on top of a bookshelf and promptly forgot about it. Until one day at school, when the 7th grade teachers were talking about how they needed some really kooky, totally inexpensive prize to give away for the relay that year. And I thought of that duck. Since then, even though I've been gone for many years, the duck has become an annual tradition at my school. The winners hoist him over their shoulders in celebration. And I'm so happy he's not collecting dust in my house anymore!

Carrie S said...

Mary, I love your writing so much! Your manuscripts are worth millions, I'm sure!

My mother has a huge collection of cat tchotchkes -- but no glasses holder as of yet. You've given me a Christmas gift to search for!

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- I've learned to see the appeal of polyester after repeated close encounters with laundry. But it's still nasty stuff.

Miss Footloose -- I did sell one piece, to a gardening magazine -- and what a thrill that was! One of my problems is that I spend so much time querying my MG/YA novels that I have little time or energy left over to query my creative non-fiction. Maybe I should be concentrating on this, but writing for teenagers is my dream.

Marcia -- In retrospect, I was an insufferable snob, turning my nose up at my mother's Mellmac and polyester and yearning for what I felt to be fancier, more respectable items. At friends' houses, I saw what I felt I was missing. Years later, I realized that I was blessed with something special: a mother who always had the time to talk to me.

Vijaya -- I now have a collection of plastic items that would make my mother proud. Having children knocks some of the dreaminess out of almost everyone, I think.

My kids still remember that I bought them clothes they could grow into, rolling down the cuffs and sleeves gradually as they got bigger. I'm still not sure whether that was nature or nurture, but whatever the case, I know my mother would have approved.

Charles -- If only we could meet up with the people who would accept our dross in exchange for the treasures they do not prize.

Ruth -- Me too: I've got half a dozen things that I wish WOULD break; until they do, I cannot make myself get rid of them. It's a curse to have such a practical nature, isn't it?

Mirka -- I love the idea of a big discount store in the sky. Something like a K-mart, but with classical music, kindly check-out angels, and tons of books. Perhaps our mothers are there together, wandering down the aisles, exclaiming over all the beautiful things.

Carole -- Hooray for your parents. I LOVE old typewriters! I once had a nasty old klunker made in the 30s that was my pride and joy. The last time I saw it, it was in a friend's garage in San Francisco. All the keys stuck and it weighed half a ton, but I remember it with an aching heart. When you type on a manual, you can bear down on the keys for emphasis. I miss that.

Adrienne -- The look on her face was priceless: she was so proud and pleased. She'd have gotten along with my mother like nobody's business.

Anne -- Aren't large stuffed animals horrible? They take up tons of room, have absolutely no function, and cannot be discarded without maximum guilt. Plus, they have faces so you feel really mean getting rid of them (or at least I do). I like your duck story and I'm glad it found a good home -- and a useful function!

Carrie -- You are kind to say that. I doubt I'll ever sell any of the stuff I write here, but as long as people keep reading it and other writers keep posting their work, I'll keep blogging.

I'll bet your mother would adore a Helly Kitty glasses holder!

annebingham said...

But we are all wondering...where do you put your glasses now when you take them off?

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- I have to make do with the bare wood of my bedside table. ;)

Robin said...

Too funny. I have to admit that I've looked at little pottery animals meant to put your glasses on a bit longingly when I'm shopping. Then I tell myself it's ridiculous and move on. Slowly. Looking back every so often. Fondling my wallet.

Robin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pat said...

Unaccountably that brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of how different were the tastes of myself and my mother. A lovely story.

Kim Ayres said...

Your 2nd-last line is so true! If it wasn't, I don't think Maggie would ever have chosen to be with me...

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- But I'll bet they're classy ceramic eyeglass-holders, right?

Pat -- Every time I remember that cat, or other beloved trinkets of my mother's that made me cringe with embarrassment, I feel like laughing and crying. We can love and respect our mothers even if we haven't inherited their taste.

Kim -- Almost all of us are somebody's rejects. I think it hones our characters and makes us humbler and wiser: if we'd never been ditched, can you imagine how ridiculously inflated our egos would be?

Angela Ackerman said...

Wow, that is just incredible--how happy she must have been to get a pair! Great story as always!

Now it would be ironic if one day you did actually need glasses, lol