After Halloween strolled by, and the shadowy form of the mysterious Raquel disappeared into the fog rolling down the middle of Main, I found myself, thinking a rather politically incorrect thought. Over and over. As the trees threw up their branches to hug themselves tightly against the oncoming winter chill, leaves fluttered to the ground, scattered graffiti, a crimson, ochre and fire engine red palette of pandemonium. Wild chaotic sidewalk art in patterns of swirls and piles and dunes, only to be airbrushed by the wind changing direction. A steadily shifting kaleidoscope of color and hue. A startling hot flash of cinnamon and chili peppers and the recurring thought, Where have all the tough broads gone?
Broads. Big. Tough. Buxom. Broads.
I held my hand out over the windowsill of my studio on Main, hoping to catch a falling leaf in the palm of my Not-Yet-A-Yeti hand. Like catching snowflakes on your tongue in a winter storm, a smile of surprise when the flake lands on your mitten instead, and up close the pattern is clear. No two snowflakes alike. So too, the leaves on my palm are unique, not yet dry and curled. I can see the serrated edges of a red maple, the five fingered cluster of the buckeye, the oak leaf a toasty brown with deeply grooved indentations like the fjords on a map of Denmark. Each leaf veined in rhythmic mathematical patterns and the stems like curlicued tails spinning mid air from separation anxiety.
I know about anxiety and separation. Separation and fear. I too am in the Fall of my seasons, but I am not a Broad. A Big Buxom Tough Broad. But I remember them.
My first memory makes me smile. I look down at my not-so-broad-ness and stifle a laugh. The day my mother took me to Philmore's department store to buy my first bra. "Littlest Angel" bra. I was no angel and little was not the adjective I would have used. I googled the name just to see if I remembered it well. There was the ad, cut out from a 1961 Good Housekeeping magazine, for sale on EBay. The copy that caught my eye said..."the bra that expands as a girl develops..."the bra that gives emotional reassurance"...the same fictional reassurance that I once believed as in "one day my prince will come". The prince never came and the development was minimal at best. But that day, in the store, I met my first Big Bosomed Tough Broad. Her bust was formidable. Shoulders back, voice of confidence and positivity, her fully formed bust aimed in my direction, she held the straps, hiked them over my shoulders and barked the command, "Now lean over and FALL into the cups." I looked her in the eyes and despite my tender age and my normally respectful respect for my elders, shouted, "You have got to be kidding me. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is falling anywhere anytime soon. " My voice carried up and over the partition of the dressing room to the aisle outside, where my mother stood discreetly waiting. When I came out, I found her in the Hat Department, under a very large face-saving hat. I savored the I-told-you-so moment, but I never said the words, as the words of the Big. Buxom. Broad. lingered in my head. As I left the dressing room, dressed angelically in my "Littlest Angel" disguise, she bellowed..."Never underestimate what the future may hold, and the support and the forgiveness of elastic!"
A short time later, I stood in my sea foam green one size fits all gym suit, wearing my supportive and forgiving undergarment in the front of the line heading for the showers. I had expanded just as predicted, but not in the choicest of spaces or places. Chubby. Chunky. Hefty. Me. Head down, in dread of the walk of shame through the community shower, my next Big Tough Buxom Broad blocked my way. My gym teacher, a tall stately brunette with a formidable chest of steel, wiped the beads of sweat off her brow and whispered to me... "Never underestimate what the future may hold, and one day you'll leave all the baby fat behind you."
Fat and flat.
Outside the realm of the Big. Tough. Broad.
Raquel Rhododendron, Yard Yeti Extraordinaire.
One of the first, and hopefully, for my own sake,
not the last, of the Truly Big and Beautiful Tough Broads.
Here is Her Story:
Raquel never had a chance. From the very beginning. To go unnoticed. Everything about Raquel stood out. Literally and figuratively. Kindergarten photo. Back row. Towering over her classmates, a giant amongst the elfin. Not to mention the flaming red curls poking out from the braid down her back. Even then, way back then, her arms folded across her chest, and her stance plus the look on her face encapsulated in one unspoken word. Well?
Hers was not a practiced posture nor a pose. The steel in her spine, the focus in her eyes, the steady stance simply a product of her genetic inheritance. All of the women in her present life and those whose faces greeted her from the faded frames lining the hallway stairs stood tall and resolute. The same think-twice-about-messing-with-me gaze punctuated by rampant red curls wrestled into temporary submission by a ribbon or a braid and arms crossed over a massive bosom on a straight as a stick, yet full bodied bearing.
Her female forebearers the first of a long line of Big. Tough. Broads. The wives and sisters and daughters of the men who descended into the coal mines of now distant Wales. Welsh women, the big boots above the ground, while their men worked deep beneath the earth, breathing in soot that would scar their lungs forever, and surely shorten their lives. The backbreaking work for so little pay. The long days and the short nights. These men with roughened hands and coal rimmed eyes, the fathers, the sons, the brothers, the uncles and grandfathers fearlessly rode the coal trams down into the pit. But at the end of the day, the women they returned to, the women they loved, they feared most. The Big. Tough. Broads. Women who eked out meals on meager wages, who tended the sick, chopped the wood, fed the stove, stretched two potatoes into a three day soup, slept head to toe with the children all in one room. In the presence of the men, as custom demanded, they would bow to their supremacy. Sincerely honor their worth. And at the same time could wither the spine of either child or man with one stance, crossed arms and a look that demanded in no uncertain terms,
The women of Wales, were Big. Tough. Broads. because the times they lived in were Big. Tough. Times. These women had no time, could not abide moans and groans, complaints and excuses, pointing fingers of blame or the hideous shame of a handout. What they did not have they grew, what they could not grow they bartered for work, what wore out they mended, those who gave out they buried. And yes, in the night, curled up tight, the Big. Tough. Broads. told stories. Not of fantasy and wishful dreams, but of bravery and courage and the need to prevail.
The need to prevail led Raquel's grandmother and grandfather to climb aboard a boat to America, and eventually to the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania. Their house sat atop the rise of a series of hills. The porch slanted slightly, but was wide and welcoming. Almost every family from the railroad tracks at the bottom of the hill, to the last at the apex of the rise, belonged to a relative, a fellow passenger on the long sea sickening ride to second chances. Raquel's grandfather left early in the day, before the sun rose and returned long after the sun set. Her grandmother planted two wild white cherry trees in the yard. She shoveled the coal into the stove to warm the room in winter, to dry wet woolens, to bake mincemeat pies. Clothes washed then dried on outside lines in the sooty air. On Sundays, the women, the Big. Tough. Broads. made their way up the hill to the small spired church at the top. A commanding performance. For it was their faith that sustained them through the morbidly brutal days when they buried one of their own. The coal mines fed their fires, filled their bellies and took lives randomly in return.
The Great War stole away other souls, and the women stepped in to fill the empty spaces left behind. There was no time to grieve, nor rant and rave. What could be overcome was, and what could not was given up in prayer. So it was, that in the years that followed the war, a short sweet time, babies were born. Beautiful bold red haired babies. Babies with a lusty cry and a hardy nature. Raquel's mother stood next to her own and stoked the fire in the stove. Collected the wash off the line. Sewed the frayed edges of her one winter coat and cut the cardboard to line her shoes, before the long hike to the school beside the church at the top of the hill. On the way home, she would join her friends on rough and ready slides down the slag piles heaped with the detritus from the mines. Little time for play nor girly girls afraid of scratches, nicks and scrapes from the ragged rock.
The Depression hit the family hard, but no harder than anyone else. For most it was a harsh reminder of the struggles thought left behind, and a poke in the ribs that the only way out and the only way up, was to be tough and hard.
One day Raquel's mother came home from school to find her mother seated at the kitchen table. An unusual and disturbing sight. Her uncle was in the hospital. An accident in the mines. He set the fuse for an explosive to clear a new opening deep in the earth. The fuse spluttered and fizzled out. As he stepped in to light the wick, the explosion blew into his very core and scorched his arms and legs. In his hospital room, Raquel's grandmother sat beside her brother and rubbed salve into his blackened skin. Then. with the overpowering stench of scorched skin filling the air, her grandmother, a very tough broad, began to sing. Softly and sweetly she sang in Welsh, songs of love and life. She sat and sang until the hand she held slipped from hers and the light in her brother's eyes flickered out.
That day, perhaps like no other, changed Raquel's father forever. He went to the mines, as he always did, but when he came home, he sat in a ladder backed chair in the parlor until time for bed. He rarely spoke. The anger and frustration oozed out of him when least expected. The day their dog ate the leftovers on the stove, pushed him over the edge. He grabbed the dog and his daughter by the collar and dragged them out the back and up into a stand of trees. There, in front of his only daughter, he raised a rifle to his shoulder and shot the dog dead. Raquel's mother never took her eyes off the the soft grey pleading eyes of her dog, cowering in the grass, even as it lay dead at her feet. But in her heart, she made a promise that she would never be so hard hearted to take out her pain on the innocent.
When they returned to the house that night, they opened the door to music. Raquel's grandmother once bartered for a piano in trade for her sewing skills. A grand old upright, it stood in the same room as the chair her father occupied in silence each night. Tonight, however, Raquel's grandmother sat ramrod straight, stiffly starched and upright like the piano, pounding on the keys and singing loud and proud, song after song. Rescue remedy. The healing balm of hymns and hearty halleluias, plus some rather rowdy Welsh drinking ballads thrown in for good measure.
The measure of a Big. Tough. Broad. Singing so loud and proud that word got round of her talent and she took on a new assignment, in the orchestra pit of the local theater, now an accompanist to the new kid in town...the Silent Movies. Her hands like her sturdy stance, flexible and smooth through the love scenes and a sharp staccato as she pounded out the beat of the horse hooves as the good guys chased the bad.
Raquel's mother, a statuesque red haired beauty, left her house on the hill. The money ran out before she could finish college. The next Great War on the horizon, she took the first job that was offered, miles away in a small Ohio town. A modeling agency took one look of her gorgeous and shapely form and signed her on. Raquel owns an album of pictures, photos cornered in black, the covers tied together with a shoestring. Inside her mother sits posed at a table, her hand folded across her chest, her flaming curls swept into a pompadour, her mouth outlined in red and rouge upon her cheeks. The expression on her face is a one Big. Tough. Broad. Well?
A young man with coal black hair fell in love with this red haired beauty, but once again life intruded. The War began and he left for overseas, while she stayed to fight at home. No time for posing. She fought and worked and earned alongside many other Big. Tough. Broads. Women who stepped up and stepped in, manning factories, driving trucks, hauling loads, building planes. Running households, living a rationed life, learning to go without. Living not only within their means, but often with the blunt message standing on the other side of a screen door. A hat tucked under a uniformed arm, and the telegram telegraphing the toughest news of all.
The lucky plucky Big. Tough. Broads. welcomed the men home with open arms. Grateful for being spared the ultimate scar of war. Home in time just for babies. Lots and lots of babies. The baby booming batch of a new generation of Big. Tough. Broads. But it was difficult for anyone to maintain a tough stance on the shifting sands of time ushered in during the 1950's. By the time Raquel entered this world, a red-haired rosy- cheeky bellowing babe, the world tilted and swayed on a new axis. Women not only went home from the factories and the foundries, they were now expected to stay there, sit there and smile. To be wife and mother and be damned happy about it. The pin up posters of the war years were filled with voluptuous and bold as brass beauties. Women comfortable in their own skin, capable, strong and determined. Not any more. Now women, pleasingly thin, wore aprons, stirring a pot on the stove, cradling a baby while smoothing on night cream and special potions to keep their man happy.
Women just like Raquel emerged from the 50's unaware of the Big. Tough. Broads. Who can blame them after growing up with Donna Reed and June Cleaver in their pearls waving good bye to their spouses and kids. Raquel went off to college at the exact moment when worlds collided. Femininity v.s. Feminism. Shape v.s. Form. The women who walked through doors not only opened by, but built by their very own mothers, looked back to sneer and chasten. The new tough broads wanted equality. Fought for it. Ranted and raved about it. Marched for and against. They were able to be so bold, because they had the one thing prior generations of women did not...time. And oftentimes...money.
The Big. Tough. Broads. did not march nor protest nor rant nor rave.
The Big. Tough. Broads. Did.
The Big. Tough. Broads. ruled their world with a spine of steel, an iron fist and the grace of strength, knowing that they were capable of acting when conditions demanded, and secure that not all actions require a reaction. Perhaps what they knew best, what was lost in the changing times, is that no one ever gets everything they want, and that often we get more than we bargain for.
Raquel struggled in her life away from home. She had come here to college, on a wing and prayer, from a home solid yet spare. Four years to fill up with her future. Yet everyday, or so it seemed, someone wanted to know what she was FOR? Or what she was AGAINST? Some wanted her to roar. Others wanted her to stand up while others asked her to sit-in. In the era of Twiggy and the lean and mean days of bra burning, Raquel stood out like a sore red thumb. Now, she crossed her arms over her formidable chest as she slouched under baggy T-shirts and cut her hair into a short red crop. She practiced LOUD. She posed as STRONG. But in her heart , she missed the mark. The women in the picture frames lining the stairs in the hallway of her home loomed large, as SHE seemed to shrink.
Raquel heard voices in her head. It was a gift. From her grandmother.
Her grandmother stood beside her coal stove and spoke to little Raquel in Welsh. The written language is a mystery of multiple consonants and vowels, but the spoken language is a rich full-throated song. Raquel spoke in tongues. Her grandmother's native tongue, then Spanish and German. The foreign syllables in one ear and out her mouth, accents in perfect pitch.
Like her grandmother at the piano in the movie theater, Raquel could play in any key. She had an ear, an ear for the languages, the songs of the world.
So it was, one day in her Phonetics Class, after transcribing tapes in various native dialects, her teacher, a large looming bosoming figure of a Big. Tough. Broad. put her hands on her formidable chest, fixed her gaze on Raquel and without a word, asked Well?
That night, Raquel lay down on a blanket under the camponile, just as the clock hands raised their hands up over their heads to meet at twelve. The voices in her head met in a fevered dance and spilled out of her mouth into the night air, a garbled Tower of Babel babble. Just before eyes closed and the coming of sleep, Eunice Everlasting, Yard Yeti Extraordinaire and Big. Tough. Broad. Emeritus. emerged from the darkness and raised her baton to conduct. In one swift motion, the pinpricks of light lined up on the treble and bass clef, in perfect harmony and sang...
United we will stand. Divided we will fall.
Raquel Rhododendron, Yard Yeti Extraordinaire, ravishingly robust and rowdy red haired beauty, tucks the loose tendrils of her untamed hair behind her ears as she dons her headphones and adjusts the microphone. She sits in her lofty perch, high in the auditorium, looking down at the membership below. The speaker steps up to the the dais as the members put their headsets in place. The United Nations Assembly is in order and as Raquel hears the voices in her head, she translates each song into a melody so sweet and pure that perhaps one day...
...the Big, Tough. Broads. will return for an encore,
stand with hands on hips
and in their oh so common and recognizable voice,
arms folded over chest, in full bodied stance...
...look the world in the eye and ask...
Mae bywyd yn byw yn y blodau gardd ym mhob tymor.
Chapter 15 | Chapter 17