My Mother never asked me for a favor like this before. “I need you to help me buy a kitchen sink faucet from a salesman. He won’t answer any of my questions.” If he wouldn’t talk to her why would he talk to a pimpled 15 year old like me?
“Why won’t he answer your questions?”
“Because I’m a woman and he thinks I’m stupid.”
Those of you reading this who didn’t grow up in Utah in the 60’s and 70’s will no doubt think the last statement was an exaggeration. For my Mother it was just a new episode in a soap opera of sexism that had been in full swing since our families’ arrival at the LDS mecca of Salt Lake City. Typically she would spit fire when confronted with the “barefoot, brain dead and in the kitchen” attitude many Mormon men held about women. When a well known LDS elder treated her like a disobedient child because she didn’t step aside to hold a open a bakery door for him she cursed loudly and stomped off. A neighborhood pharmacist tried to publicly humiliate her for asking for contraception by insisting that she pull the condoms out of their hiding place behind the counter. For his efforts he got a screaming tirade and threats of an epic lawsuit.
Unlike her three children in tow, these men were uniformly unmoved by my Mothers impressive protests. Why should they be? They were the unquestioned kings of their world. We were outsiders, The Church would always prevail. That was the status quo.
It seemed completely out of character for her not to slam the door in the face of this salesman. “I really need a faucet and your father doesn’t have time. I want to get this damned thing done!” After a frustrating meeting she made an appointment with him for the next day at 10 am. I was to be there as her liaison to the male dominated world of kitchen appliances. Its hard to describe the feeling you get when your Mother suddenly needs you to occupy the place of being an adult for her. I felt at once proud and set adrift.
The salesman, I’ll call him Nimrod, showed up at the appointed time with a tidy binder and a sparkling clean cut look. Immediately I realized he was standing in an echo chamber enjoying the sound of his own voice as it tantalized us with the power of his faucets. Funny that faucets had never struck me as phallic before.
“I’ve selected these for you to look at today.” Not even glancing at my Mother he passed the binder across the table to me, she might have been a servant. I tried to appear taller and less acne-ed as I surveyed his impressive array of manly hardware.
“We’re only interested in the ones with the spray attachment, and just the stainless steel.” I was a confident kitchen sink guru endowed with phallic faucet wisdom well beyond my years, thanks to my mothers preparation.
Just as she anticipated he responded only to me. When she spoke he occasionally looked at her and smiled, shaking his head slightly as if a mad fool had just said the strangest thing. Of course a woman wouldn’t know anything about warranties, they’re just too simple to understand! I jumped in fearing she might take one of the giant cast iron pans she punished our stove with when she was angry and kill him where he sat. With great effort I was able to steer him through his binder to the two or three faucets she had picked out in her initial conversation with him.
It was about at this point that she began to laugh. It must have been Nimrods sublime stupidity that set her off. Perhaps it was the years of extreme sexism that had miraculously bundled themselves up as a faucet salesman.
Though we sat only inches away he smiled broadly thinking neither she or I could see the large Lego cogs turning in his brain: a sale was upon him! He was in fact so fantastically oblivious to us that when her laughter overtook her in loud snorts and sputters it never even registered on his delighted face.
Quickly her hysterics were spreading to me. I couldn’t believe this guy was real! He was the most clueless adult I’d ever met, yet he assumed my Mother was too stupid to pick out the kitchen faucet she wanted. He was so witless he had no way of estimating how witless he was. I think he could have even withstood the full blow of my Mothers biggest cast iron pan without blinking.
There must be parallels in other cultures. Perhaps many different men expected women to wear a veil of stupidity so they wouldn’t be tempted to think of them as human beings. Their veil hid not only that which was alluring but also that which was threatening. Once one woman is wearing an invisible veil of stupidity – surely every woman in the world would appear to be just as stupid. Was he really so clueless or just extraordinarily gifted at denial?
So long as I was speaking to my Mother he filtered out what was being said. She would force out a sentence between guffaws: “tell him we need it put in next Tuesday…” pause for a breath “… and that you can’t sign for it, I have to.”
“Oh, OK” he finally turned to her, grinning as if he were feeding pabulum to an infant, “you’ll need to take this pen and sign here.” I half expected him to say “thats a good girl!” After signing she simply stood up, walked into the kitchen and laughed her ass off. I ushered him to the front door, a proud Don Quixote fresh from vanquishing his latest windmill.
My Mother often slammed our front door against Nimrods. It was a heavy old door, the kind that sounded like a shotgun going off when flung closed. I think she slammed it to shut out the very existence of the Nimrods of the world. When she felt the house shudder under its weight her body relaxed and she could return to the work of raising her children and trying to stay sane. That day the door closed quietly with the faint sounds of laughter following Nimrod on to his next conquest.
When we were young I don’t think she shared much of what she endured with my Father. Perhaps she thought it was her burden to bear. He was doing great work in his career while she made sure we weren’t gobbled up by armies of Nimrods when he wasn’t around. She wanted a ticket out of the arcane patriarchal world and she had the memories of a twenty year old soap opera as proof of payment. As it happens over time the culture changed around her, and the Nimrods knocked on her door with less frequency.
I was powerless to do anything for her or my sister when I lived there. I wished I could have become an adult long enough to force Nimrod to treat my Mother with the dignity she deserved. More than faucets he was selling a veil that hid women’s intelligence so he and his fellow Nimrods could feel like men. I imagined an army of them treating all women as if they were ignorant children to be tolerated but never respected. They created a smothering blanket that filled the Salt Lake Valley.
That kitchen faucet made me a momentary citizen of the world my Mother had lived in for over fourty years. I left the sale feeling inadequate but relieved. I wouldn’t be her hero, that day it was her laughter that saved us both. I am struck by her greatness when I remember that moment. More powerful than a frying pan or a lawsuit, her laughter had easily banished the veil Nimrod tried to impose on her.
Its weird how experiences like this change you forever. A faucet is such a small thing but it was able to teach me so much about the tyranny of ignorance men perpetrate against women every day everywhere in the world. I’m not above being a Nimrod myself, just very embarrassed when I am. I have my Mothers laughter to rescue me regardless of which side of the sale I’m on that day. That was my payment for helping her buy the faucet. Of the three of us I walked away with the best end of the deal.
PS – I think it was probably a shitty faucet anyways.