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In Search of My Mother's Style

Jane Santos

New PopMatters columnist Jane Santos finds a whole course work of women's history right in her own home: embodied in the exuberant life of her very stylish mother.

I who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me�.
I made you to find me.
51; Anne Sexton, "The Double Image"

One weekend when I was in college, my mother called me and said in her characteristic accent, "Carmina, you come home, I have somtheeng to giv' you". I guessed that her surprise present was another of her attempts to get me to wear a pearl necklace in the dire belief that all women just had to have their own string of pearls, or a 7-pack of little girl Pucca, or Hello Kitty underwear, like one of my aunt's had brought me from the Philippines.

I got home and my mother proudly handed me a gigantic Ziploc bag full of tampons and maxi pads. "Look", she said victoriously, "your aunties and I saved these for you. Now that we are mostly starting menopause, we don't need them anymore." I mumbled a "thanks mom" and received my hefty Ziploc bag full of tampons and pillow-sized maxi pads with as much gusto as I could muster. My mother's expectant look informed me that I should receive the tampons like I was Kublai Kahn receiving a majestic tribute from a neighboring king. Feeling trapped in a horrific PJ Harvey-esque moment, I thought it strange that my mother and Filipino aunties would crowd around in contemplation of my wonderful vagina and monthly cycles.

At the same time, I was also awash in sentimental feelings over how endearing and sweet it was of them to pass down their tampons and sanitary napkins to me like a cherished family heirloom handed down from woman to woman. For the most part, I viewed the gesture as kind of radical, coming from my aunties. Especially considering that they had spent most of their lives living in a third world country full of Catholics, where hunting down a tampon would be just as difficult as killing a white whale that had bit off your leg on the high seas. And so, my dowry had been passed down to me in a giant Ziploc bag, the kind most suitable for freezing large-sized ham hocks for the following night's dinner, and I was dutifully honored to inherit it.

My mother and I had come a long way in understanding each other as women. It was an evolution that entailed us never discussing anything sex-related from the time I was born until well, right now. Most of our mother-daughter advice talks consisted of her reminding me consistently throughout college to "stay pure" in pleading and desperate tones like I just couldn't wait to shame her and my entire family and blacken our family registry -- that is, if Filipinos had family registries like the East Asians did in ancient days. Whenever my mother had to refer to my female sex organ, she became a mistress of diction, wielding her words carefully and settling on cutesy euphemisms that sounded like the latest names for the pandas at the San Diego zoo. Now her monthly "Carmina reminders" have remarkably progressed from "stay pure" to a firm and confident "Carmina, don't get pregnant" and a creepy and insistent "Carmina, whatever you do, don't have an abortion, because we're gonna keep the baby," making me feel like I was a pregnant Gwenyth Paltrow at the mercy of her psychotic mother in that horrific train-wreck of a movie, Hush.

My mother was definitely wizening up to the fact that unlike her, I did not go to a Catholic school in the Philippines where scary old nuns beat standards of etiquette into young obedient Filipino maidens. She is ambidextrous by force because a scary-evil-goat woman-nun tied her left hand behind her back as a child to keep her from writing with her left hand in what, she was reassured, was most definitely "a demon's malady." I, on the other hand, learned a great deal of etiquette as a child from watching the Drummonds interact with each other politely during dinnertime on Different Strokes. My mother never fails to reprimand me every time I nervously shake my leg and I'm sure she's fought the urge to tie my leg to a chair to get me to stop. No doubt horrified by what my mother deems as my shocking disregard for ladylike virtues, she will also periodically remind me (unnecessarily) that I'm a working girl now, and should remember to wear make-up and shower regularly. Thanks, mom.

After about 30 years of marriage, my mother divorced my dad in what marked the dawning of communication and womanly understanding between us. My father had decided to further his treatise on American culture by exploring every nuance of American gambling that ever existed, from the all-encompassing and ubiquitous Asian male-sport of mahjong, to online poker, casinos, and gambling on just about every sport from here to Nantucket, short of betting on cricket games in India. My father, who likes wearing fleece jackets and UGG boots (yes, UGG boots), just loved gambling and I secretly didn't blame him. I developed an appreciation of my dad's entrepreneurial love of sport at an early age after being told the story of how my dad had organized a successful gambling ring of fighting cocks in the Philippines when he was in his youth. But at some point, my mother had had enough. When asked why she left my dad, she will simplify things and blame his gambling. But rather, I think what lay at the heart of her decision to leave him was her desire to have what feminists of the women's movement demanded: respect, recognition of her workload, freedom, purchasing power, and her own happiness. However, don't tell my mother this since she'd never ever call herself a feminist.

At my co-worker's bridal shower last month, I was asked to write down my own personal advice for marital bliss to the bride-to-be on a cute little card. Not surprisingly, I had no damn clue what to write. I desperately racked my brain for any instances of content matrimony between my mother and father that I had ever witnessed. I was at a loss for advice, feeling like a blind and mute sage, an impotent Tiresias, contemplating how appropriate it would be to write down "Don't let your husband go out to play mah- jong more than three nights a week", or "Don't speak to your husband in such shrill tones of voice that the household African Gray parrot develops a hysterical woman-ish sounding voice with a Filipino accent". I settled for something safe and trite to fall back on, scribbling down "Hold hands everyday and look into each other's eyes", just moments before my card was collected.

In the two years following my parents' divorce, my mother exponentially grew in sassiness and classiness. While our home with dad had been decorated in nauseating country décor with fake chickens, plaid and cows everywhere, my mother had opted to furnish her new apartment in sleek dark woods and leather couches. While in past years, a lot of my mother's hair fell out because she suffered so much stress; my mother now grew her hair out in illustrious chic layers and used expensive anti-frizz products to help tame it. She became a frantic shopping dynamo, flipping through Lucky magazine, trying out Kiehl's face wash, and getting decked out in cute denim capri pants from Ann Taylor, which replaced the more budget-conscious Marshall's as her favorite place to shop.

I concluded that my mother was reaching the height of capitalist extremism when she decided to purchase her very own Pilates machine (which we eventually gave away to my cousin, since she never used it). I began to wonder if I'd come home and find her reading The Fountainhead and waxing objectivist philosophy. One day I came home and thought she had purchased a ventilator for my grandfather in the Philippines, but no, it was her own personalized home-facial steaming machine, a piece of work lifted somewhere off the set of Metropolis. Living by the motto that one can never own enough steaming machines, my mother also bought one more steaming machine, this one outfitted to steam clothes and replace the cumbersome ironing process that involved the too bulky board.

Soon she took to purchasing the things that should never ever be purchased off the home shopping network: make-up, turkey and perfume, things the TV prevents you from smelling, tasting, or dabbing on the back of your hand to see what the color looks like on your skin. The turkey came in air-tight packaging in a Styrofoam container; much like I would've imagined how kidneys are transported before they're used for surgery. My mother's choice of hairstylist soon went from cheap $15 haircuts in a Koreatown salon to getting her hair cut and styled like Jennifer Anniston's on the cover of W magazine and straightened by one of those super hi-tech Japanese perms that cost a lot of money in fancy salons. My mother was suddenly competing with me for "Most Chic and Youthful" and compared to my bedraggled, fatigued, run-down ass with messy hair and wrinkled clothes, my mom had the heads up.

I, of course, was growing concerned and disapproving, nagging her about needing to save money, about her Elton John-like baubles, and criticizing her need to match her earrings with her shoes, with her bag with her watch, with her sweater and with an oversized ring. Suddenly I was the hysterical one, telling her she had to engage in financial planning and stop being so trendy and materialistic. When I questioned her decision to purchase a gigantic opal-pearl crucifix that looked like something Liberace would have worn if he was also an expert vampire hunter, she grew quiet and sad and said "Well Carmina, I just buy all this jewelry now because I never got to buy it when I was married to your dad. It's been my dream just to be able to afford my own jewelry." Right then and there, I had the words "Wretched Asshole Daughter" branded onto my heart and I was one of the heartless daughters Balzac depicted in Pere Goriot. After that, I resolved to cut my mother some slack and quit nagging her about her shopping network expenditures, throwing a little more trust her way to take care of herself.

In demonstration of my support for my mother's independent life as a single woman, I even obliged when she asked me to accept stewardship over her forays into internet dating. My mother and I had never ever discussed dating the whole time I was in high school; I had always described my high school boyfriend as "my best friend" to my mother and father, who certainly pitied the poor guy as some pushover homosexual fop that just followed me around. And now, recently divorced and in her 50s, my mother took it upon herself to open up the flood of discourse about romance, relationships, and dating with her daughter, desiring not to find out about my dating life, but to hopefully land herself another man.

My mother's college friend in the Philippines had successfully met, fallen in love with, and married an American man by way of a Christian internet service and traveled across the Pacific Ocean to become happily wed in Whittier, California. My mother would not be outdone by her friend and decided that she, too, would have a try at an online man-hunt; and the artisan commissioned to craft her internet dating profile was none other than yours truly. The task was probably more difficult than I could ever have conceived since in writing a genuine summary of what kind of a woman my mother really was, I found out that I barely knew her, aside from the fact that she was my mother and insisted that I write down that she only wanted to date "white men or Filipinos" on her profile. I did my best, talking her into being more open-minded in terms of dating; lifting favorite Bible quotes to put in her profile from The Purpose Driven Life and her refrigerator magnets and encouraging her to expand her dating preferences towards more multicultural horizons. She begrudgingly obliged and I felt like after being at odds with each other for 23 years, we were suddenly a mother-daughter team, almost like how Beyonce and Lindsay Lohan were best friends with their moms and liked to party with them, but really not like them at all.

Since I was little, my mother constantly spoke of Princess Diana and Jackie O to me, to the point where I felt all Joy Luck Club and wondered if those women were two long lost children my mother had to abandon in a war because she had dysentery. (Interestingly enough, my mother's favorite comedian right now is Chris Rock. But that's another matter.) After reading Nowhere to Run, the history of soul music by Gerri Hirshey, I called my mother up a few days ago and told her that I felt sympathy for Florence Ballard, the Supreme who sang backup with Mary Wilson, who everyone knew sang better than Diana, but died penniless, a forgotten about mother on welfare. My mother, on the other hand, backed Diana Ross all the way, saying that the singing didn't matter so much as Diana's poise, and that she deserved to be the Supremes front woman because Diana's style was what she idolized and remembered as a teenager. Indeed, when I look at pictures of my mother when she was my age, she is the epitome of '60s perfection: beautiful bouffant and pale lips and shift dress. She looked like the most stylish woman in the world.

My mother is like the replenishing Nile River of style to me. She is in many ways a New Woman in the United States, in her own right. She is a hard-working older Asian woman who's lived in the US for over 20 years, and from what she's learned while here, I think she could write a book rivaling De Tocqueville's observations of the ins and outs of American culture. The ways in which my mother has adapted and appropriated to various forms of American pop and consumer culture in dealing with divorce, tampons, changing hairstyles and beauty regimes tells me more about femininity, consumerism, changing gender roles across various ethnic, racial and socio-economic lines than I could ever learn from a women's history course at UCLA, or by attending the new Chanel exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York this summer. In starting out to write about women's issues, femininity, style, sexuality and all matters concerning woman and whatnot for this column, I go in search of my mother; my focal point of style, my provider in all lessons in grace, etiquette, and ingenuity.

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