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I can follow Monica Rico's poem "Tomato and Lettuce" (Internet Archive copy) until the last description/metaphor; the full sentence is:

The bright split of my
birth was to a woman

who wanted me
to wear my decoration
a tree cleaned of its bark

after a cool winter doesn't
forget its leaves.

What "decoration" does the narrator's mother want them to wear? If the tree has been "cleaned of its bark", is that a loss of a decoration of a sort? I assume that the tree metaphor is related to this previous one:

[What] is the relationship

between mother and
daughter, tree and limb?

What does the mother want? How does her wanting it tie in to the rest of the poem, which seems to be about the trap of women within domesticity?

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2 Answers 2

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The poem contrasts the relationships within sexes to the relationships between them. Specifically, the poem contrasts the relationship between a husband and wife to that between a mother and daughter.

The speaker says that in traditional family relationships, the wife and children are "garnish":

two kids and a house,
a wife who kept the

beds made, shirts ironed.

Garnish serves to make a meal attractive, but the meal is complete in itself without it. That is, the husband or father is the central figure. The wife and children are peripheral. Their lives are mere adjuncts to the man, who enjoys a full life by himself.

The narrator thinks of work that was considered typically "women's work"—ironing, laundry, preparing food, even the role of ama de casa or housewife—as "adornment" By contrast, her "mother swears" that such tasks have to be done. The point is that despite these tasks being necessary, they are not valued: both by men and by the narrator, they are thought of as inessential make-work. This is expressed metaphorically by the chopped-up tomatoes and lettuce. They are nutritious and, as a salad, could be the centerpiece of a meal, but are similarly reduced here to mere garnish.

This mismatch between work and worth causes the speaker to reconsider the relationship between herself and her mother, or by extension, between mothers and daughters generally:

                  What
is the relationship

between mother and
daughter, tree and limb?

Thinking back to the memories she has of her mother, the speaker says that it would be an error to focus only on her mother's "laughter," or to claim that her mother was happy in her domesticity. She has to remember her mother's "sadness" as well. Why is the mother sad? There could be several competing reasons:

  • Because she feels unfulfilled in her role as housewife, mere garnish to her husband's life
  • Because she worries that her daughter is rejecting the role that is expected of women, and so is making her own way in a world that is unfamiliar to herself (i.e., to the mother)
  • Because her daughter does not appreciate the importance of the domestic labor she (the mother) has done, and so is replicating a masculinist attitude.

Underlying all these possible reasons is the wish that the daughter should "wear [her] decoration." On the one hand, decoration recalls garnish, so one way to read these lines is to say that the mother, being unable to imagine alternatives, wants her daughter to lead the same kind of life as a housewife. On the other hand, a decoration is also a medal. From Merriam-Webster:

1 : the act or process of decorating

2 : something that adorns, enriches, or beautifies : ornament

3 : a badge of honor (such as a U.S. military award)

The last few lines are certainly dominated by natural imagery of childbirth, trees, and the seasons, but a reading of decoration as medal is suggested by words such as ironing and canned in earlier lines. They introduce the contrasting, metallic imagery that enable the reading that the mother wants her daughter to wear her (the daughter's) work as a medal. That is to say, she wants her daughter to achieve success on her own terms, and to be proud of that success.

The mother is now like a "tree cleaned of its bark," i.e., worn out by the work and worry of managing a household and raising children. If the children are leaves, then being without any covering implies that now those children are grown and no longer in the same household. However, the mother still thinks of them. Though the daughter's life is different from her own, she still takes pride in having raised her. She remembers how the daughter adorned her house, and wants the daughter's achievements in turn to adorn the daughter.

The lines you ask about are richly ambiguous. They do recognize that domesticity is a trap, but they also indicate that women of an earlier generation took pride in their domestic achievements, despite those achievements being undervalued by not only their husbands, but also their daughters. The lines also evoke the mixed feelings a woman who has a traditional view of gender roles might have when her daughter takes a different path. The pride that such a woman has in her daughter remains undiminished, though. The poem suggests that both mother and daughter should wear their different achievements as badges of honor, and that those achievements are equally natural to both, as leaves are natural to a tree.

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    I'm not too sure about my interpretation, but it does seem to me that if you have garnish, adornment, and decoration in a poem, they probably all mean the same thing.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 13 at 14:01
  • Oh I agree, @PeterShor. I don't think it's the only thing they mean, though.
    – verbose
    Mar 13 at 23:15
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TLDR: The thrust of the poem is that the mother treats the daughter as an adornment. Similarly, the father treats his wife and children as adornments. The poem is complaining that people are being treated as decorations, and not as actual thinking beings.

The poem starts with:

Then, everything was garnish,
two kids and a house,
a wife

And later it runs:

I believe men

made work for women,
invented tile,

starch, matrimony,
and ama de casa
to chop the tomato

and lettuce sometimes
in bowls, often on the side
as adornment.

[My emphasis in boldface above.]

Note that the title of the poem is Tomato and Lettuce, which the above verse specifies as being an adornment. Is this title implicitly comparing the mother and daughter to tomato and lettuce? I believe so.

Later the poem asks:

What
is the relationship

between mother and
daughter, tree and limb?

I believe the answer is that, as the limb is an adornment of the tree, so is the daughter an adornment of the mother.

And finally, we have the lines

The bright split of my
birth was to a woman

who wanted me
to wear my decoration—
a tree cleaned of its bark

after a cool winter
doesn't forget its leaves.

The woman wants the daughter to wear a "decoration" — I don't know what this decoration is; maybe clothes, maybe housework. But I interpret this as meaning that she wants the daughter to also be an appropriate adornment. So the wife adorns the husband and the daughter adorns the wife ... it's a veritable festival of adornment.

And what does the tree "cleaned of its bark" signify? If the tree is the mother, and the daughter's decoration is clothes, then "cleaned of its bark" might signify that she is no longer beautiful, so she wants to enjoy vicarious beauty through her daughter.

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