I Remember Placemats

Pondering the age-old question,
"What do you need it for?"

While Shopping at Macy's the other day, I encountered, for the ten thousandth time, my parents, myself. My girlfriend and I were hunting for placemats. Uncharacteristically, I had made a fancy addition to my apartment, a breakfast countertop made of marble-a substance, I quickly learned, which picks up permanent water stains. Placemats had suddenly become necessary in my life.

First in the trendy "Cellar" department, then upstairs amidst the staid environment of bedspreads, linens, and towels, dozens and dozens of placemat choices were laid out before us. Surveying this jungle, I wondered which style was destined to be mine-the self mockery of dancing bears, the reliability of classic checkerboards, the splashy post-modern abstractions with their up-to-the-minute feel? I felt a growing anxiety and sadness: the past was catching up to me.

I was remembering the placemats of my childhood, two sheets of white paper "toweling" folded at the perforation, highly functional, immediately disposable. After doing their job, they went the way of all trash. (when colored paper towels were later developed, my parents, stubbornly indifferent to change, continued to use white, even though as retail grocers, they had the pick of the lot. later, as colors became truly commonplace, they too might be used, but aiwais accidentally, a package of blue or yellow chosen haphazardly from the store's window display.) why, I wondered in silent embarrassment, did we have to use those pathetically plain absorbent paper cloths, when the families on TV used the real thing-cheerful, cherished, enduring placemats?

Under the rigorous principle "What do you need it for?" my parents pioneered a no-nonsense, no-frills existence long before "no frills" became a marketable concept. Frills and nonsense cost money and spending money was, simply, not done. Traumatized, in my mother's case, by growing up in a fatherless Depression caring for a non-English-spea:king mother, and in my father's, by being an immigrant on unsure footing in an alien land, my parents treated money as something to be acquired and stored, not used. Decor, beauty, style, the ornamental details of their physical environments-all these went unnoticed.

"what do you need it for?" -the family anthem. if you really started asking, almost anything beyond food, clothing, and shelter became irrelevant. Color, style, design-these were concepts to pay lip service to, but if the choice came down to pretty versus cheap, the latter would invariably triumph. Life, the message was, should be unadorned.

Today, years later, while almost profligate in spending money on meals. friends, entertainment, I still carry that heritage with me, as traumatized by my upbringing as my parents were by theirs. But the justification they gave for their behavior, Depression-formed fear of hunger, has evolved in my case into an odd anti-aesthetic. My inherited need for unadomment now justifies itsetf by seeing the pursuit of beauty in clothes or furniture as ostentation, somehow silly and effeminate, undeserved or wrong.

At Macy's, surrounded by all those colorful placemats, I was encountering my parents in me and feeling once more the struggle against spending money on things that were merely pleasing to the eye while biting to the purse. I recalled the fights I'd had, atavistically, with my ex-wife about buying furniture, even knick-knacks, for the house. In retrospect, our arguments were nothing but my stubborn refusal to give up my heritage, no matter how vestigial and counterproductive maintaining it might have been.

As my girlfriend blithely browsed, I sensed the contradictory pulls certain placemats were exerting on me based on price, color, texture, pattern, style. "what do I need it for?" I felt myself asking. I recognized the minimalist wisdom in that position, but saw too how it, like any philosophy rigidly adhered to, became a caricature, a perversion of itself

Finally, I bit the bullet and bought a pair of charcoal gray plastic-coated, simulated-woven placemats -with green violet, pink, and yellow cross-hatching-for $3.98. Exhausted by the effort, I noted my girl was pleased. We made love when we got home.

Maybe that's what you need it for.