Tomorrow I begin my one-year resolution to buy only those products made in the USA. Yikes. I feel as if I’m about to begin a diet. You know how that is? How, the minute you tell yourself “No More Chocolate!” you’re rummaging through your cupboards, your refrigerator, your junk drawer, under sofa cushions. Your mouth is literally watering, about to escalate from saliva to foam. And before you know it, you’re driving like a maniac to Trader Joe’s to pick up a one-pound hunk of dark Belgium chocolate. Paper or plastic? Neither, just shove it here in my open mouth.
Is that how this project is doomed to turn out? With me hyperventilating at the Target checkout stand, my red plastic cart stuffed with Made in China booty as I fight the urge to tear my clothes off right then and there and dress up in my stash of ungodly cheap yet so adorable cable knit ivory sweater and denim stretch jeans and leather boots with low heels? How much did you say the total was? Oh my God. That’s so cheap. Hook me up to some more of that Made in China stuff, baby. More and more and more.
Sorry. It’s just that it’s a little scary, undertaking this project, and now I’m wondering if it’s too late for Go USA! approach anyway. Maybe I am–and we as a nation are–already too far gone, too hooked on Made in China (or Made in Anywhere But Here) for some schmaltz mixed with Zen / One Day at a Time / Mindful-American-Shopping solution. Too late, even, for some Norma Rae (who I decidedly am not) to pull the cord and sound the alarm. If “What the Market Will Bear” is still used as a barometer for corporations and retailers, then we, as Americans, bear and bear and bear. We want our Michael Kors black wool pea coat for $49.99 at Costco and we want it now. Okay, maybe you don’t but I do. I want it. I had the damn thing in my hands just the other day. Ran my hands along the wool. Marveled at how soft it was. I held it up to myself and figured it’d look mighty cute. Maybe I would get one for me and a few more and give them to my three daughters and one daughter-in-law at Christmas. Then I opened the coat and looked inside and there, nicely embroidered on the label, it said: Made in China.
And in that moment, I picture my Dad. I don’t picture him as he was the weekend he died of esophageal cancer at age 92, I picture him in the mid-1960s. Tanned. 40-ish. Cary Grant dapper. Frank Sinatra cool. Thomas Edison smart. Devoted, loving husband. Solid family man. Wears black rimmed glasses, nice suits for church and alpaca sweaters for golf. A Hollywood cinematographer, he’s landed a DP (director of photography) gig on the TV series “Lost in Space.” It’s Saturday. He stands at the kitchen counter, the Los Angeles Times spread out in front of him. Cigarette smoke swirls around him. He clears his throat. My four siblings (eventually there will be nine of us) and I are all eating bowls and bowls of Corn Pops cereal. I have no idea if anyone else is listening to him, but I’m like 10 and somehow can’t take my eyes off him as I scoop the sweetened cereal into my mouth. Here’s what he’s saying: “For Christ’s sake, this is nuts. I’m telling you. You kids are gonna have to do something about it someday. If American companies manufacture stuff in Taiwan and Japan it’ll kill jobs. By the time you kids are grown…man oh man…hate to say it, but rots o’ ruck, kids…”
Fast forward–that’s a Hollywood-Dad-ism–to Thanksgiving Day this year. I didn’t know Dad was a mere three days from passing away. The hospice nurse said he was doing “incredibly well,” and would likely be around for Christmas. Still, he couldn’t keep food down. Could barely keep a popsicle down. Was getting to the point where it was impossible to swallow. He was still dapper, still dressed: pressed khaki slacks, powder blue sweater. Tanned olive complexion. Thin white hair brushed neatly back. But he wasn’t talking. Usually, when I arrived for a visit from the San Francisco area, he would say “There’s my Sunshine Girl. How’s the writing? Say, how many pages you write in a day?” He’s had short term memory loss for the past decade. Ten minutes later, he would ask me the same thing. “There’s my Sunshine Girl. How’s the writing? Say, how many pages you write in a day?” It was like trying to converse with Dory, the loveable fish in “Finding Nemo.”
But on Thanksgiving Day this year he didn’t say much. He kind of smiled. His hazel-brown eyes looked somehow distant. I bent down and kissed his forehead. He said, “Are we having turkey today? I’m hungry.” He kept forgetting about his cancer. He kept forgetting nothing would stay down.
He’d always called me Sunshine Girl because I was the middle kid with a sunny disposition. On Thanksgiving Day, hearing him ask for food he couldn’t swallow, I naturally fell into my little-kid role. I needed to make him smile. Usually, just having me or anyone in our family take the time to listen to him riff on world events made him happy. But now, he couldn’t talk. He needed me to riff for him. For some reason, I said: “Hey Dad, remember back in the 60s when you used to talk about Import Backlash? You’d tell us about the trade imbalance and stuff. Remember? You wrote that article about it?”
Recognition crossed his face. He nodded. Relieved to get off the subject of food, I kept going. “Hey, maybe I should write about it. I should, like, only buy American products or something for a whole year and blog about it. Do my part to narrow the trade imbalance. That’d be interesting, you know? Wouldn’t it? Is that a good idea?”
He smiled. Nodded. I was getting somewhere. Then he said, “We having turkey today?”
That was our last conversation, if you could call it that. Three days later, early on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, my sister Shelly called. “Dad passed.”
Everyone deals with loss in his or her own unique way. For me, this year of seeking and buying American goods will be my way of connecting with my Dad, of continuing his legacy. He never tolerated an “I’m up, pull up the ladder” mentality. He used that phrase a lot. “Oh I see. It’s I’m up, pull up the ladder. Well, that’s not gonna fly around here, kids. No way.”
He meant, I think, we are all in this world together. We need to watch out for each other. We can’t just buy a Made in China Michael Kors jacket because it’s cheap and go off happy and then ignore how many jobs were not created right here at home to make that jacket. Or we can’t ignore the substandard working conditions where the foreign jacket was made. Just yesterday, five workers died and eight more were injured in a Chinese pharmaceutical factory fire. According to online reports, thousands of workers die in Chinese factories every year.
I’m up, pull up the ladder.
Last night, as I paced in my office, wondering what I’d gotten myself into with this project, I found myself looking for Dad’s old writing. He bequeathed it to me a dozen years ago, telling me to “do whatever you want to” with it. I had stuck it in a file somewhere. I mumbled a prayer to St. Anthony, something my Sicilian grandmother, Nana, taught all of us grandkids to do. Within one minute (no exaggeration), I found where I’d put Dad’s stuff. There inside a frayed photo album is a large mailing envelope. I open it up and pull dozens of papers out. There’s a title page, dated March 13, 1975. It looks like this:
At the top of the front page, in red ink, Dad’s handwritten a note:
Tina, Please read this. Thanks. Much love, Dad
It’s like he’s stopped by to say “Can you please take a few minutes to hear what I’m saying?”
Okay, Dad. I’m listening. This year’s for you.