Nancy De La Zerda


Nancy De La Zerda is a native of San Antonio and received the Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Spanish from Our Lady of the Lake University. She published abstracts of both her Master's Thesis, Mexican-Americans' Reactions to Mexican-American 'Standard' and 'Non-Standard' Speech, Speech Monographs, 1975; and her Doctoral Dissertation, Employment Interviewers' Reactions to Mexican American Speech, Speech Monographs, 1977. She has also had several non-fiction articles published in various publications over the years. A former educator, she taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake University, and at both the high school and middle school levels. She also has a background in corporate and retail sales. She is currently working on her second novel, "The Spirits of La Sembradora," as well as her memoirs.  

                                                                   From Memoirs, Nancy de la Zerda


When at last we kids were allowed to venture beyond our yard on San Antonio’s early 1950s Westside, toddlers still, we traveled, clutching Mom’s hands, to another planet, directly across the street: the home of middle-aged Lupita and her mother, Pepita, who appeared ancient, wrinkled as a raisin. Blind and toothless, Pepita swayed back and forth endlessly in a creaky rocker, gumming her jaws and smacking her lips when she spoke, which was incessantly, chiding everyone, warning against us.“¡Cuidado! They’ll break that!” She rendered blunt intimidation.

Their home had a unique smell I called “Polly” after their cantankerous, loud parrot. He sounded almost human and sang over and over, demanding, “¡Toca la maraca! ¡Toca la maraca! Play the maraca!” He’d yodel from the kitchen, “Lu piii tah! Lu piii tah!”

 I still say, “It smells like Polly,” about anything near that “aroma,” a potpourri of furniture polish, rotted tomatoes boiling on the stove for resurrection as salsa de tomate, bird-in-the-house smells emanating from the geriatric parrot’s cage, and the dank “old lady” smells of Pepita, perpetually wrapped in a black wool rebozo, even in the heat of summer—a remarkable stench of stale perfume entwined with, what? Dandruff? 

I grew to love that world of two women—one, growing old, the other visibly approaching her death. We’d sit on the floor because children weren’t allowed on living room furniture. While my mom and Lupita chatted on the plastic-covered sofa, Pepita croaked her opinions and commands from her rocker in the corridor. Lupita spoiled the decrepit old woman, who got crankier and needier the more Lupita pampered and fussed. We, of course, were scared witless of Pepita. Besides her overbearing manner, she looked cadaverous, forlorn, her mouth misshapen, and creviced skin that punctuated every expression. Her blank eyes gazed ahead, white with cataracts, pupils rimmed in the blue of extinguished sight. A shaky hello at Mom’s urging was all I could muster for Pepita. Ever.

Lupita shared countless recipes with mom. Wonderful recipes of all kinds, from Yankee pot roast and French toast to a wonderful German fruit cake my mom made like no other. And Lupita got Mom involved in her sales ventures. When Pepita had gone blind, Lupita quit a retail job and to make money from home, she sold products such as Stanley cleaning supplies, all-occasion greeting cards, dishware sets, Sarah Coventry jewelry and Avon cosmetics. She enlisted my mother’s help and paid her commissions.

Mom loved selling. She’d been in sales since age seven, after her father was killed in a train accident, and her mother, my abuelita in Mexico, opened a small general store in what had been their parlor to support her four children. My mother soldiered up, even at such a young age, and with the blessings of the nuns at her school, sold candy, pencils, and shoelaces to help make ends meet.

We went with Mom to Lupita’s when they did cuentas, the accounting, and sat still as statues unless spoken to. Pepita’s rule. I had ample time to study every detail of the living and dining areas.

A beautiful plastic doll stood atop the radio console. She was held upright by a huge, starched doily skirt in scalloped waves around her. All the tables and chairs, every shelf in the china cabinet and the nooks built into walls, were laden with small porcelain figurines and dime-store knick-knacks atop doilies everywhere, literally hundreds of figurines: tiny dogs, cats, horses, lambs, graceful swans, Southern belles, courtly princes, dancing ballerinas, boys holding fiddles, tiny vases with paper flowers, porcelain hands with outstretched fingers. Lupita told us she had brought one home for Pepita every payday over the seventeen years she worked at Kallison’s Western Wear downtown. I was enraptured by that Polly-smelling house full of dime-store knick-knacks. It was my first museum.    

They seemed priceless, coveted treasures to a child from a home as modest as mine. I had only two dolls and one figurine to call my own. Each doll came in a cardboard box and Daddy bought me at the grocery store. The first was plastic, six inches tall with blinking eyes, black hair and wore a red nylon dress. I named her Sonia. The rubber bands that secured her legs soon snapped and she became an amputee I kept for many years. The other doll was larger, a rubbery nun, in full habit, who held a little rosary. I still have her tucked away, though in pieces—but complete, not unlike my hopes to be noble in thought and deed. I never gave that doll a name. Maybe I should’ve.

One of my aunts gave me the single figurine I owned. It was a bright yellow lamb with two baby lambs suspended by tiny brass chains. All three wore red polka dot bows. I cherished the lambs until I left home for college and lost track of them. I was delighted to see them years later in the baby room at my sister’s.

Gazing at knick-knacks was one pastime that room afforded us, but even more eye opening was that of witnessing Lupita and my mother host sales “parties” where they pitched and demonstrated their latest wares. They’d invite ladies from the neighborhood to sip iced lemonade and nibble homemade cookies or fresh pan dulce.

One party I remember vividly. Mom demonstrated dishes made of a “revolutionary” new material, Melamine. They looked like regular ceramic or glass items.  She held up various pieces of dishware, while Lupita handed out product brochures. Watching were housewives—neighbors, friends and relatives—perhaps a total of nine women in addition to Mom and Lupita. Pepita’s rocker kept creaking, creaking more rapidly than usual for all the excitement. Mom addressed everyone in her native Spanish, while Lupita conducted the sales pitch in English.

“Melamine is here to stay! And you’ll find the plates to be lightweight, easy to clean, aaaand…” She extended an arm to Mom, who let go a plate from hip level and smiled while everyone watched it fall onto the highly polished hardwood floor. The women gasped loudly and sat back in their chairs, astonished that the plate hadn’t shattered, “Eehhgggh!” They gazed askance at each other—at which point Lupita launched into a five-minute discourse on the virtues of Melamine dishes while Mom passed around cups, plates, bowls, and commenced taking orders for the “fabulous” stuff. I was in awe, staring at the unbroken plate on the floor, wondering why no one picked it up.   

This was just one of many occasions we kids, too young to be left alone, sat through one of Mom’s visits to others’ homes. She loved to chitchat, and we often grew impatient, twitched about, and complained. But not at Lupita’s, where we barely moved a muscle or, God forbid, dared to whine.

Lupita was a disciplinarian to every kid on the block. She was the neighborhood “nana.” We were all her charges, in a sense. She meant business, often marching right over to kids’ homes and asking parents, “Did you know Alfredito did this? Or Rosie, did such and such?” Things along that vein.  Everyone dreaded a scolding from Lupita—parents included.

So, within the confines of that pristine sanctuary of the aging spinster and her slowly dying ancient mother, in that house of the Polly smell, we behaved, lest Pepita bark and Lupita admonish us in front of my mother, who’d shake her head, crestfallen at her disrespectful children.

No tienen vergüenza. You have no shame,” she’d say as we trudged back across the street. But that rarely happened, since we truly feared Pepita and were intimidated by Lupita’s constant threats to give neighborhood kids unas buenas nalgadas, some good slaps to the butt. Very scary words to me, since Mom and Dad never spanked us.

Lupita’s threats, though legendary, were just that—threats. Never happened. Her presence and rules of decorum were enough to make us better people, both children and adults. She and the Polly-smelling house were great treasures on that beloved block in 1950s Westside San Antonio.   



My dad never approved of Mom selling things, so she mostly conducted business while he was at work.    

© The Acentos Review 2018