My grandmother had the worst taste in the world, which meant that she was always fun and easy to shop for. Consequently, she always got the lion’s share of my gift-giving budget. She was the kind, in a certain age, who would’ve fit very well in Miami. She always decked herself out with too much makeup and jewelry, bright and gaudy colors, favoring the brightest blue eye shadow, so much that my mother would tell her that she looked like a streetwalker. She wore the loudest clothing she could get her hands on, and if it was lamé, all the better. Her over-the-top purses, always big enough to carry an entire carton of cigarettes, would be considered tacky in some circles, but that didn’t stop me from coveting one which bore multi-colored dead, stuffed birds nestled under clear plastic. I was thrilled when she gave that to me.
I thought she looked beautiful.
There was a time when I thought her house was exquisitely decorated, even if her idea was to buy out an entire department store window “because you get an interior decorator for free that way.” Consequently, I never had to buy furniture at any stage in my life, because there was always a progression of furnishings from the living room to the den to the rumpus room of their split-level house to the weekend house to mine. I still have never bought living room furniture that I was able to pick out for myself. It saves on hiring a decorator, you know.
I thought her house was beautiful.
When I was 8 years old, we went to Tijuana to do some shopping, probably over Thanksgiving weekend. I always knew that my November allowance would take a big hit, since December meant my grandmother’s birthday as well as Christmas. I bought her a little tray which bore a design of a bird with real feathers under glass, signed “Mexico.” At $2.50, it cost me an entire week’s allowance, but it was worth it. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I could afford, and I knew she’d love it. My mother thought it was the most hideous thing she’d ever seen, but she said “Mama Jean will love it.”
I knew who had the taste in the family. The next year, I would buy my grandmother $10 silver earrings, because she appreciated fine quality. Those, too, came from Tijuana.
As the years went on and I lost my sense of good taste, I’d snicker at the little tray, always displayed in her rumpus room, the room which bore the latest in 1960’s interior design: electric and green blue shag carpet, coffee and end tables painted green with a hint of gold, the black patent leather chair, wrought iron home bar finished in black with touches of gold, the swag lamp filled with turquoise and bright green diamonds, and a wall telephone with a cord that retracted right into the wall. The King Kamehameha wicker chair. And the zebra skin ice bucket. The little tray almost looked a little out of place amid the sophistication and glamour of the rest of that room. My grandmother didn’t put that little tray out there just for politeness’ sake; she knew fine art when she saw it.
My grandparents would furnish my first law office in 1977 with desks from my grandfather’s office and a reception room comprised of yet more castoffs. My mother swiped the little tray from Tijuana from her house, suggesting that it might repose on the reception room coffee table “because it’ll appeal to your migrant worker clients.” Embarrassed by the horror of it, after a while I tossed it away into a cabinet, and somehow it got moved to the next office and the next, and then somehow it ended up right here in central Mexico.
Anyone normal would think of the little tray from Tijuana as something that just wouldn’t die. Until only a few months ago, I hadn’t seen it for at least 30 years, and I almost broke down and cried when I discovered it. And you know something? It is beautiful, in a kitschy kind of way, and ones just like it are going for $50 on eBay right this very moment.
It’s not for sale.