Before I became "La Gringa" (a mildly offensive Spanish term for a North American female), or better yet, "La Gringa Nalgona" (a decidedly offensive term for a North American female with a behind larger or rounder than those typically associated with the northern hemisphere), I was just Rebecca, a girl who showed up to meet her Panamanian future mother-in-law wearing a dress that would not stay up.
On my second date with Richard, I had chosen to wear a strapless, clingy,white dress that tied in the back with the kind of bow that typified that oversized look of 1986. It was a poor choice of apparel for a night of dancing. Even under the least strenuous conditions, it was a challenge to wear and it became apparent after just a few minutes of shaking it up to the latest Madonna hit that I was in trouble. The cotton fibers of the tightly knotted bow was no match for the Material Girl or my C-cups moving in time. I looked like a demented chicken with my wrists tucked under my armpits, doing anything to keep the dress from slipping.
"Look", Richard said. "My parents live very close by. I am sure my mom must have something you could put on over the dress. We'll get it and come back. You'll be so much more comfortable." I agreed sheepishly, and within a few minutes we had pulled into the driveway of a stately suburban two-story. Several people came to the door as we entered and suddenly I was ushered into an effleurage of kisses from Richard's two brothers, several cousins, an aunt, his step-father, his mother, and two miniature poodles.
Everyone talked at once and I was soon answering questions about my own family, my studies in college, my part-time job at the local television where Richard and I met, and a host of other inquiries that came more quickly than I could process. They praised my attempts to respond to some questions in a halting Spanish. I knew that Richard's mom and the rest of a large extended family were from Panama. Richard spoke Spanish fluently himself, and I suddenly felt self-conscious of my awkward attempts to understand the flurry of words around me.
When the conversation finally waned, Richard's mother invited me to a back bedroom where she began the search for a suitable cover for my dress. I praised her choice of a black sequined top that would compliment my outfit perfectly and continued to express my gratitude while I waited for her to leave the room.
She didn't move.
"Try it on." She insisted. She had a certain tone that didn't leave room for negotiation. Edna was a smallish woman with piercing black eyes, short dark hair, flawless olive skin, and an accent that was at times impenetrable after almost three decades of living in Minnesota.
As I tried to shimmy my way through the bottom of the sparkling beadwork, she took command. "No, it's better dis way." She pulled and tucked from another direction, leaving me momentarily caught in the black folds of the top. With the top still only half on, she stood back to assess the situation. "You know what your problem is? You know why your dress don want to stay up when you dancing? Tu eres una tetona."
The words were lost on me. "Sorry, I don't-----"
"Tetona. Te-to-na. You have big teets."
I remained frozen with black sequins pressing against my eyelids, trying to process the words. What? Tits? Oh, my God! What? No one I knew ever used that word. It was crass. Indecent. Degrading. My mother always said that a cow had tits - a woman had breasts. I pushed my head through the top as my face grew hot with embarrassment. I was uncertain if I should declare my feminist convictions about the offending word. Again, there was something about the wave of her hand that told me it wouldn't make any difference.
"You know, my father always told me, 'Edna, never ever be a pig and wear dirty brassiere'. You know. Brassiere. Bra. He say, 'A woman always need to have a white, white brasiere. No gray brasiere.' He say,'Your brasiere should be white like the clouds in the sky.' I know American womans don have the bras white. They walk around like pigs in dirty gray bras. They don know how to wash clothes to get white."
I looked down through the neck of the shirt and into my own cleavage for a quick survey of my own bra situation. Mine was strapless and almost brand new.
"When you have beeg teets, you probably don wear the right brasiere to fit you." She stood back and looked at me from another angle. "Y tambien, eres una nalgona. Sabes ques es? You know what is las nalgas?"
Again, I looked at her blankly.
"It means you don have de butt like American womans. You skinny but you must be part chombita cuz it stick out like a black womans."
I am totally at a loss. I survey all the responses I could or should give but there is nothing in my life experience on which I can draw. I can continue to gape until I am left with no options beyond an uncertain smile.
"You want I should buy you some good bras?" She asks me smiling back.
"Er. Well, I think maybe?"
"I buy you some bras. You'll see. They will fit you better so you can go dancing when you want and don have to worry about tits showing too much."
And sure enough, at our next meeting, only a week later, Edna met me at the door with a plastic shopping bag from K-Mart that held five brilliantly white bras.
In the twenty-two years since that strange encounter, I have learned a great deal. I learned that my mother-in-law has an unusual knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. I have learned that she is incredibly generous and that there is almost no malice in her inappropriate statements. I have learned that my politically correct soap box has no place in her world. Any attempts I have made (and I have made many) to set her straight or sensitize her to any issue is a complete waste of time and energy.
But more than anything else, I have learned that, when I am at her house at least, I should always wear the cleanest, best fitting underwear in my drawer.
Rebecca Bauer was born in Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis, only a few miles from where she currently lives. This may explain her tendency toward long, nasal vowels and hot dish on cold, dark winter nights. She is the mother of two growing boys, Nicholas and Noah, who proudly can consume a gallon of ice cream in less than three days. She has been married to her dashing Panamanian-German husband, Richard, for over two decades. During the day she can be found in her classroom where she tries to teach English to a very large number of teenagers who alternately love and loathe her depending on the barometer, wind chill, and availability of a bathroom pass. She has always had a passion for writing, but uses it most often these days as a way to look too busy for folding laundry or correcting papers.