As the wife of a man who didn’t like it when I ventured far from home, Tupperware parties were my entire social life. Although I never hosted one, I could always be counted on by my neighbors to ooh and aah over a jade green colander, 8-cup mix-and-store pitcher or some other kitchen necessity, and to compliment the delicious snacks they served in their lovely homes.
The evenings were carefully scripted. First there was a warm greeting from the hostess. Then she would introduce a party coordinator from the Tupperware company who would tell us how Earl Tupper, after being inspired by the metal lids of paint cans, had introduced the world’s first airtight food storage bowl in 1949, a revolutionary invention which had made possible the wide variety of polyethylene plastic storage containers displayed in front of her.
She would end her monologue with a demonstration of the patented “burping seal” feature that made Tupperware superior to its competitors and well worth its higher cost. We would then each be given a bowl and asked to practice the proper technique for lifting one corner of the top to let out some air before pushing down in the center to achieve an airtight seal. Thus a room full of young mothers, all expert baby burpers, were taught how to expel excess gas from plastic containers.
I got to the point where I could repeat the instructions by heart.
Next, new products, like a celery crisper or a deviled egg storage keeper/tray, would be passed around for us to talk about and admire like bridal or baby shower gifts. Finally, refreshments would be served and we’d be given the opportunity to place our orders and sign up to host our own party.
I can’t say I was as engaged with the discussion of plastic containers as I’d been with history and politics in my college days, but that didn’t keep me from going. I went because I needed to get dressed up, get out of the house, talk with someone over the age of eight, play silly games and laugh.
Of course, every time I went, I also felt obligated to buy another piece of Tupperware. My collection included: cereal, ice cream, cracker and bacon keepers; a lettuce crisper; a Jel-Ring mold; a set of nesting canisters; a stack of fall colored tumblers; hourglass salt and pepper shakers; and enough other items to fill two bottom cabinets to capacity.
I wish I could tell you that I put all these items to good use, but most of the time they served only as toys for a fussy toddler during what I called the “meltdown hour,” right before dinner. The older kids would be running around the house, my husband would be about to walk in the door expecting dinner to be ready, and a handful of Cheerios wouldn’t stop the baby from screaming, so I’d put her down on the kitchen floor, open the cabinets, and give her a wooden spoon to beat on the Tupperware, to her delight.
Later, as I would be shoving my collection back into the cabinets, I’d wonder if it was worth displeasing my husband by going to these parties if this was all I had to show for it.
It wasn’t the other mothers’ fault the parties were not fulfilling—it was mine. Pretending to be a perfect homemaker who got excited about a plastic container I didn’t want or need wasn’t working anymore. It felt hollow, but I still went to one more party where I made my last purchase—a white plastic three-piece ham taker. The picture in the catalog of a five-pound canned ham covered with clove-studded pineapple rings, maraschino cherries and a golden honey glaze being lifted from taker to platter with flawless perfection got to me, even though I knew there was no room for it in my overstuffed cabinets. To the best of my recollection, I never took a ham anywhere, but as it turned out, the purchase gave me something I needed more.
I had made friends with a woman at church. Diane and I had gravitated toward each other out of our shared awkwardness at being the only mothers in the congregation who attended services without their husbands. Had we not had that in common we might never have connected because our styles were very different.
I had been the college student who wore her hair long and straight like Joan Baez, but who only sat around the dorm singing protest songs. Diane would have been at an peace rally with her fist raised above her short teased hair. She wore colorful flowing tops while I favored crew neck sweaters, but she had two kids about the same age as my youngest children and that, along with being spouseless at church, was enough to get us talking in the parish hall. She invited me over for coffee, but I couldn’t go until I figured out a way to justify to my husband making the thirty-minute drive to her house. I found the solution after I did some research and discovered there was a grocery store near where she lived that sold Budweiser cheaper.
One day when I was visiting my new-found friend, her little boy started crying and hanging on to her leg as young children will often do when their mother is trying to have an adult conversation. Dragging him along with her, she moved to the butcher-block island and opened the cabinets underneath it. There was an avalanche of Tupperware. She had a hidden stash, just like mine, and used it to pacify an unruly kid, just like I did. My God, I thought, somebody else does it too.
“I do the same thing with the damn stuff,” I said.
“Really, I thought you were Suzy Homemaker.”
We started talking about our lives and how sick we were of pretending to be better at being housewives than we really were. We admitted to being bored by the lack of mental stimulation, to having short tempers with our children, and to feeling guilty about all the ways we fell short of the Good Housekeeping ideal of neat houses, frugal shopping and proper food storage.
There was something so absurd about telling each other our frustrations and fears while standing ankle deep in Tupperware that we got silly and started to pick up the plastic containers and make up other ways we might use them. She turned the lettuce dome into a hat. I grabbed a cupcake carrier and beat on it like tambourine. She built a tower of canisters and nesting bowls and I did an Indian war dance around it. I set up tumblers like bowling pins and she knocked them down with a grapefruit. When we ran out of ideas we started throwing Tupperware at each other like kids having a food fight.
“OK,” I said. I told her about my ham taker. “What am I going to do with it?”
There was a long pause. Our mood turned serious, as if not knowing what to do with the ham taker symbolized not knowing what to do with our lives, which also felt sealed in plastic containers. With heads bowed and bodies slumped, we stared down at the mess around us, afraid that even if we glanced at each other we’d see there was only a hair’s breadth between hysterical laughter and despair.
The force inside me that can visit a dark place but not stay there finally broke the silence with an idea that was so outrageously funny I couldn’t speak without cracking up. When I finally was able to get it out, I said, “I’ll save it for my ashes.”
She came right back with, “And I’ll be right there to give you a last burp!”