Scottish War Bride comes to Texas
by Marge Vallazza
Early New Year's Day, January 1, 1949, Times Square, New York City. A short time before, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians had struck up the familiar "Auld Lang Syne." Streamers, confetti, horns, crackers, and snappers had exploded and rained down on the people! Strangers and friends alike had counted down to Zero hour--equally determined to have A Good Time to celebrate the New Year.
Late at night, New Year's Eve, December 31, 1948, across the country in El Camino, Texas, Meredith Duffy Zaldivar, a British war bride from Scotland, sat alone listening to the radio announcer describe the scene at Times Square.
"At hame, me mammy would've had her 'First Foot' awready," she remembered.
She was in her mid-twenties, with honey-colored hair braided in a crown atop her head, golden highlights glimmered in the coil. Her light-brown eyebrows arched over clear grey-blue eyes and wore a far-away look. The dark-blue woolen dress with padded shoulders she wore helped to give the appearance of a stalwartness she didn't feel. Her slim feet were encased in open-toed leather vices.
"I'd like to get these bloody things off! The shoes here aren't as good as the ones at hame! I never had trouble wi' me shoes there." she muttered in disgust as she slipped one off and rubbed her toes. "I'm getting corns!" she thought in horror.
She looked toward the curtained doorway that separated the room serving as her "hoose" from the rest of her in-laws apartment. It was not a large room but it had two windows whose khaki shades had long since been drawn against the dark, a door opening directly out, and the doorway, where earlier she had put fresh curtains up. A patterned linoleum was on the floor. A moss green, plush sofa and easy chair were cheek-by-jowl with a set of mahogany twin beds and matching dresser, chest of drawers, and bedside table with bronze fixtures; the radio/phonograph cabinet she was listening to; and a white enamel kitchenette table and four red vinyl chairs. She had no need yet of a stove and refrigerator because Senora Zaldivar, her mother-in-law, did most of the cooking. Even though everything was new, Meredith had been shining and polishing for days in preparation of this event.
She glanced at the clock; in Texas, it lacked almost an hour until midnight. The clock tsked-tsked at her, "Tsk-tsk, there's almost an hour to go!" Where were her in-laws? She had invited them to see the New Year in with her because she didn't want to be alone. Her husband, Cholo, was at this moment in Pennsylvania, where he'd been stationed in November--3 weeks after Meredith's long-awaited arrival in the United States.
Meredith's mother-in-law, Senora Zaldivar, did not drink (supposedly, but Meredith had caught her knocking a few drinks back one day), so she probably would not come. Besides, she didn't speak English and Meredith didn't speak Spanish and it would be a strain on both their conversational capabilities. Senor Zaldivar probably wouldn't come, because Meredith had refused to open the whiskey bottle when he'd asked for a sample of it earlier when she'd extended the invitation.
"No, 'Pappa,' it's the custom in ma country to not open it before midnight."
Aurelia, Cholo's 28-year-old sister, was at a party. She'd invited Meredith to go along, but Meredith felt she ought to stay in and not be "gallavanting about" without Cholo. Ernesto, Cholo's brother, who was still a bachelor at 25, had said he might be by; Juan, Meredith's 15-year-old brother-in-law, was told by his parents that he and his two sisters, Alicia and Philomena, were too young to be up until midnight. The girls were, of course, long asleep.
Beside Meredith, on the cool enamel table, was the offendingly unopened bottle of whiskey (smuggled across the Mexican border into Texas by 'Neto), some store-bought cake and biscuits. . .
"No. Cookies. I must mind to call them 'cookies." She thought, pronouncing them "kewkies" in her Scottish way.
She remember the day she'd gone to the Falcon Cafe, a luncheonette near the Dry Goods store downtown and asked for "fish and chips." The waitress had brought her a plate with a scoop of tuna fish salad on a lettuce leaf and surrounded with broken and stale potato chips. She'd been too embarrassed to refuse it. Maybe if Cholo had been with her, he'd have explained some of the differences between American and Scottish cooking and then she wouldn't have made that mistake. Meredith considered that she'd had a lot to put up with since marrying Cholo and coming to this country.
First, in Scotland where they'd met and married during the war, when they were "walking out," she'd fought down secret shame at being seen with the tall, very dark, but handsome Mexican-American soldier. People would stare at them and whisper, sometimes even shake their heads when Meredith and Cholo would walk down the street of Strotherglen, her hometown, on their way to an evening's entertainment in Glasgow a few miles away. Cholo never seemed to notice, but Meredith was always relieved to get into the more cosmopolitan Glasgow where they didn't attract the kind of attention they did in the small town. Besides his exotic good looks, maybe it was his self-confidence that made her fall in love with him. It might also have been his prosperity. He'd told her his family had a radio in every room. When they'd gone to the priest of St. Patrick's Catholic Church to ask him to marry them, Father Mackenzie had refused. At first, it was because he believed it to be only a wartime romance, then it was until he had written to Cholo's parish priest in El Camino. He questioned Cholo closely about his family and their circumstances, and turned to Meredith.
"Do you realize that if you marry this man, his culture and customs are entirely different from yours? And if I do marry you to him, if you later discover that you cannot cope with the difficulties of his way of life, do you realize that no divorce is possible?"
She had responded with all the fervor and ferocity of a woman in love. In due time, Father Mackenzie had received a reply from the priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in El Camino. He had summoned both of them, but Cholo was on guard duty and could not get off. Meredith entered alone where Father Mackenzie showed her the reply he had received. It read, in part:
'. . . The Zaldivar family is a good one. They attend church regularly and are financially better off than most of their neighbors. This is due in part to Mr. Zaldivar's skill as a master tailor and his employment in one of the city's better department stores. . . I feel that the young couple will have a better chance, though, of a successful marriage if they live away from this neighborhood, as it is a predominantly Mexican one and less Americanized than others in the city. However, if the young lady is willing to assimilate . . . she has an excellent opportunity to experience a way of life few of her countrymen or even my own would even take a chance to. . .'
To Meredith's mind came visions of the actors in Blood and Sand and Down Argentine Way. She loved everything about "the pictures" and Hollywood. As a child, she'd envied Shirley Temple so. But she looked at the priest and replied, "Oh, yes, Faither Mackenzie! Cholo's to apply for housing 'on post' for us and we'll visit his family. . . not live with them!"
So, they'd gotten married, and on her wedding night, Meredith was alone because Maggie, her younger sister, had taken Cholo off to the pub. Then, after 3 months of marriage, he'd gotten sent back to the States for demobilization; the Government hadn't allowed him to take Meredith with him. Her papers still had not come through. Three years passed before Meredith saw her husband again. In all that time, Cholo had attempted to get a job but like thousands of other war veterans had discovered that the job market was sated with returned 'war heroes.' When he had finally found a job, it was as a waiter at the Fort Delight Officer's Club in El Camino. He managed to send Meredith about $50 a month. Finally, to get her to the United States, he had reenlisted in the Army.
Loneliness was her companion during this time. She'd go down to the fish market on Succiehall Street in Glasgow to look at the Hindu merchant who looked so much like Cholo. That is how she kept him fresh in her mind and alive in her heart, because to be truthful, being married cramped her dancing style. As she sat in El Camino "hame" looking back and recalling all this, her eyes filled with tears. She twisted the plain gold band round her finger, sighed, and waited. Her eyes took on a faraway look and she sniffled and hummed a few bars of "Bonnie Scotland, I adore thee!" She cried quietly as she remembered the previous New Year's Eve. She'd gone to a dance with a Dutch sea captain she'd been introduced to some months before. Her mother had disapproved and predicted doom--not because Mrs. Duffy disliked the captain, but because Meredith was married.
'Aye, he's a fine man, Mer-redith, but well ye know nothin' but hear-rt ache can come o' it fer-r yer-r a merrit wumman!' her mother had argued.
'Dae ye think I've fer-rgot, Mammy? Och, I want ma man wi' me--no six thousand miles awa'! Mammy, even you went to stay wi' ma daddy when he was in the jail after desairtin' frae the Ar-rmy! Besides, if he doesna send fer-r me soon, I'll be divorcin' him!
'Whist, ye bugger! We don't mention it aloud!'
She'd given her a fright! Catholics never divorced, they endured whatever came with the marriage and forgave. With resignation, Meredith's mother hugged her and told her to be in before midnight. 'Ye know if yer-r no in yer ain hame by midnight, ye'll no be in the next.'
Meredith's mind returned to the present and she glanced around the room and felt depressed that she had no one to see the New Year in with. "The night o' all nights!" she groused. The clock ticked on, and she remembered other New Years spent in Strotherglen. For days before New Year's Eve, she, her mother, and her sisters had cleaned, scrubbed, aired, and washed everything in the house that wasn't bolted down.
The custom of cleaning your home and having everything neat as a pin for that day was a holdover from pagan times. To clean your home was to rid yourself of the bad spirits and influences of the old year. Whoever entered your home (the First Foot) determined your luck for the year--whether it would be good or bad. Dark-haired people were the best, particularly if they carried a lump of coal or, better yet, a bottle of whiskey in their hand as an offering. Well, one thing for sure, her First Foot would be dark, and she'd have good luck the entire next year!
"Maybe Uncle Neilus will be first-footin' at me Mammy's," she wondered aloud. "Och, he was ever a one for hirin' himself oot fer-r a shillin' and a drink!"
Och, the food the Duffy's had had for Hugmannay [New Year's Eve]! They'd saved and scrounged their ration coupons for this one event when it seemed as if they could eat their fill and more! Scones and jam; oatcakes; flaky sausage rolls; dark, rum-soaked, bejewelled fruitcake (made months before); butter-rich shortbread; and port wine, whiskey, and pots and pots of good strong tea! Nothing like these puny, wee envelopes of herbs Americans had the bloody nerve to call tea!
Meredith glanced at her small food offering and sighed sadly. Well, it wasn't her fault that Senora Zaldivar had talked her out of baking in her kitchen! She'd said that Meredith probably wouldn't know how to operate her cast-iron stove.
"Imagine, me, Meredith Duffy, no' knowin' how to use that bloody stove! Me, that was the best baker at Clayburns' Oatcakes Bakery for six years! Huh, She probably didna' believe me when I telt her that Clayburns' are wur-rld famous. Well, they wouldna' be in this bloody backwatter!" she thought resentfully.
Meredith had been so lost in her thoughts that she didn't hear the knock on her curtained doorway. . .when the curtain twitched, she was startled. She turned to look at the clock and saw that it was just past midnight. Strange, she hadn't heard anyone else celebrating. Who would be her First Foot? In the brief moment before she saw who it was, she fantasized that it was Cholo. Instead, her brother-in-law, 'Neto, came in and grinned at her.
"Is it okay if Juanito comes in, too? He has never been allowed to stay up past midnight."
"Aye, ye bugger, ye'r-re ma 'Fur-rst Foot'!" she exclaimed delightedly. Then looking down at his hands, she asked, "Where's yer lump o' coal? Where's anythin' ye moochin' sod?"
'Neto looked at her as if she'd gone crazy. " What are you talking about, Merredit'? Juanito giggled.
"Och, ye'r-re supposed tae br-ring somethin' wi' ye when ye 'first foot' someone--an' ye didna'" she wailed. "Well, how was I suppose' to know? You and your funny customs! Bad enough to have Mexican ones without adding your to them!" 'Neto complained. He'd already been exposed to them. "Do you remember when I was polishing my boots and you knocked them off the table? I had to do them over again!"
"Yer-r no' supposed to put shoes on the table, 'Neto! It causes fights!"
There had been a fight--between Meredith and 'Neto. Juanito had been listening delightedly, now, he pointed to the refreshments and asked if he could pour himself a drink.
"Oh, no , my little man! You get Nestle's cocoa! But I'm of two minds whether to gie any to 'Neto!" she joked.
The three Zaldivars drank and 'Neto asked for a refill before Meredith had half finished hers. He tossed his off again and threw the cheap glass against the door leading to the outside and shouted "Al Ano Nuevo!" The noise roused her father-in-law, who demanded in Spanish what in the hell was going on!
'Neto responded to his father in Spanish, "Nothing, 'appa! Go back to sleep!" Switching to English, he glanced at Meredith's glass and asked, "Hey, cat, (he was learning American-type slang) aren't you gonna have any?"
She looked at her nearly full glass and said quietly, "Here, you have it. I'm no' droothy." He eyed her quizzically, "'No droothy'? Listen, Maria, if I was you, I'd try to talk more American. You wouldn't feel so left out of theengs then." He referred to the fact that Meredith had confided to him that when she sat at the dinner table while the family conversed in Border English and Spanish, she thought they were talking about her.
"Yer-r a fine one to talk, 'Neto Zaldivar-r! Besides, it's no' the Amer-rican that gies me so much as the Spanish yez all jabber at each other!" she retorted.
He shrugged and said, "Well, okay, I have a fiesta to go to. So, I'll see you later." He and Juanito hugged her. When the curtain dropped into place and she heard the front door close, she made a face. Putting her hands on her hips, she sashayed around the room as she mimicked 'Neto, "'Aye see joo laytah!' Bloody bugger! Drank aw ma whuskey and broke ma guid Woolwor-rth's glass tae!"She threw herself on one of the beds and contemplated her "first foot." She did not feel encouraged by it, and she began to cry--for herself, for her mother (whom she'd never see alive again), for the husband she tried to love, for the Dutch would-be lover she had lost, and for the child she had discovered earlier in the week she was to bear. It was Cholo's, of course. Happy New Life, Meredith Zaldivar!
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