When I was a little tiny sprout, my parents had a couple of paperbacks by Jean Kerr lying around. She was a playwright with one Tony under her belt, but people probably remember her for Please Don’t Eat The Daisies and The Snake Has All The Lines, prose rambles constellating around the subjects of wifiness and motherliness and daughterliness. I suspect this was the only matter that book publishers wanted to see from women at the time; I was more your space-ship and sword-fight kind of reader in those days, but her literate grace sucked me in, and so did her astute ear for the nuances of human experience.
One of them was a mention of that place we all find ourselves in sooner or later when sleepless at four in the morning, afflicted by nagging memories of the mortifying low points in our lives. The one that made me wince in mortal sympathy was “the time I dropped — and broke — a quart bottle of mineral oil in the elevator of the Time-Life building.”
It’s funny how things come back on you. That is one of the few phrases I remember entire from the books (another, pregnant with future meanings unimagined at the time, is “God help you, honey, if you’re in Philadelphia and you’ve got Spam.”) Only recently did I stop to reflect how the image persisted. Here is a character from my first silly mystery novel (English is not her first language) describing how she has escaped from unwanted police “protection” during a grocery trip:
“So! I must get away. Police woman is with Elisa, tasting food, where whole end of the aisle is blocked up with this samples table. This seems like nicer police woman but I am taking no chances. So I look around, here is a cart with boxes of salad oil all ready to put on the shelf, I get my foot under it and push. Fracasso!!!! Oil and glass everywhere, god-awful noise. Now everyone is trapped by salad oil. I turn and walk straight out of the store and then I start to run.”
Later, when I had to run up a fifty-word bio about the pseudonymous authoress, I wrote:
…She may be the person who once spilled a container of blueberry yogurt in the elevator of the County Building, but rumors that she won a ribbon at the County Fair for “Most Disturbing Zucchini” are unfounded.
I swear I wasn’t thinking about Jean Kerr at the time.
I bow gratefully in the direction of my elders.