The Faucet


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.”

“Why won’t he answer your questions?”

“Because I’m a woman and he thinks I’m stupid.”

Those of you who didn’t grow up in Utah in the 70’s will no doubt think the last statement is an exaggeration. For my Mother it was just another episode of the soap opera of sexism that had been in full swing since our family’s arrival at the LDS mecca of Salt Lake City just before I was born. 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 member of the Council of Twelve treated her like a disobedient child because she didn’t step aside to hold the door for him at Mrs. Backers asylum for sugar addicts, she openly cursed at him. A neighborhood pharmacist tried to humiliate her for asking for contraception. He insisted she pull out the condoms he had hidden behind the counter. “We normally don’t allow women to buy these.” For his sin, the pharmacist received an operatic tirade and threats of an epic lawsuit from her husband “WHO IS A LAWYER AT THE UNIVERSITY AND WOULD LOVE TO SUE YOU INTO BANKRUPTCY!”

Unlike her three, terrified children in tow, these men were uniformly unmoved by my Mother’s 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 my mother not to slam the door in the face of this faucet salesman. 

“I really need a faucet and your father is going to be out of town. I want to get this damned thing done!” 

After a frustrating first meeting, she made an appointment with him for the next day at 10 am. I was to be there as her liaison to the masculine world of kitchen appliances. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when your Mother suddenly needs you to occupy adult space 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 he introduced himself to me and proceeded to tantalize us with the power of his mighty 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, older, less skinny and totally un-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 15 years, thanks to my mother’s 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 the village idiot had just said the strangest thing. Of course. a woman wouldn’t know anything about warranties, they’re just too simple to understand! When she started to blush with anger I jumped in, fearing she might take one of the giant cast iron pans she punished our stove with and kill him where he sat. Mom came from a world where parents drank heavily, cursed mightily, and kids often had to fend for themselves. Both of her parents were cooks and had a hard time holding a job down for too long. The eldest of six kids, she had little patience for the congenial idiocy that haunted her life in SLC. It was not unusual for my mother to hit our stove with such force the house shook. 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. I may have saved a life that day.

As the sale droned on, her mood took a sharp left turn – she began to laugh. Perhaps it was the years of extreme sexism that had miraculously bundled themselves up as this one singular, polyester-suited fence post of a patriarch. Perhaps it was the image of the oversized Lego cogs turning slowly in his brain: “a sale was upon him!” He started to beam like a polished melon on a summer’s day. 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 Mother’s heaviest cast iron pan without blinking.

So long as I was speaking to Mom 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 pablum to an infant, “you’ll need to take this pen and sign here.” I half expected him to say “that’s 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, our proud Don Quixote fresh from vanquishing his latest windmill.

My Mother often slammed that front door against the Nimrods of the world. It was an old heavy oak 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 Nimrods. It’s crash signified a “FUCK YOU!” to the world. When she felt the house shudder under its weight her body relaxed a little 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 our guest out and onto his next conquest.

When my siblings and I were young I don’t think my mother shared much of what she endured in Utah 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 and their minions when he wasn’t around. When we were grown she talked constantly about leaving Utah, she had the memories of an endless hellish soap opera as proof of payment for her ticket out. However, over time the culture changed around her, and the Nimrods knocked on her door with less frequency. She even started treating some of them with a kindly pity. She and my Dad stuck it out until he passed away about twenty-five years later.

I was powerless to do anything meaningful about the LDS brand of sexism 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 comrades could feel powerful. I imagined an army of them treating all women as if they were ignorant children to be tolerated but not truly respected as equals. They created a blanket to smother women’s full power that filled the Salt Lake Valley.

That kitchen faucet made me a momentary citizen of the world my Mother lived in for decades. 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, she had easily banished the veil with the power of the humor in her heart.

It’s 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 tyrannical 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 Mother’s laughter to rescue me on those days, regardless of which side of the faucet sale I’m on. It’s like a magic potion that allows me to laugh at myself when I’m being a Nimrod yet it can also give me hope when I think about the incredible suffering misogyny causes in the world. That was my payment for helping her buy the faucet. Of the three of us, I obviously walked away with the best end of the deal.

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