Saturday, January 3, 2009

My domestic education (or lack thereof)

I grew up in a home that was always immaculate. We rarely (we're talking once or twice a year here) ate meals in restaurants, and my most vivid memory of my mother in those days is of her walking briskly around the house in her flipflops (accompanied by a kind of staccato flap-flap-flap) and wiping EVERYTHING constantly with a soapy dishcloth. My mom was a fanatical cleaner. In fact, my sister and I (little demon children that we were) used to torment her by deliberately putting our fingerprints on the refrigerator. This was a great way to liven up a dull afternoon, as not only did it supremely annoy Mom, it often provoked her to chase us around the house with her soapy dishcloth. (Luckily, you can run faster barefoot than in flipflops!)

While we never had to put up with a dirty house, unwashed clothes or stale bedlinens, my mom's fanatical cleaning habits had some unfortunate consequences. We got the message, intended or not, that cleaning was more important to Mom than we were. A glass of milk knocked over produced an ireful outburst and fervent scrubbing, accompanied by sighs meant to convey how much extra work our carelessness caused her. My sister and I resolved privately never to become slaves to the drudgery of housework. This was not much of a danger, however, as Mom never taught us how to do any of the housework, likely judging that it was both faster, and more effective, to do it herself. (There is no way we could have produced results worthy of her standards.)

Fastforward 10 years: I was visiting my sister and her husband. Upon my return home, our parents were extremely amused by my report that my sister's bathroom towels were so grimy and smelly, I had no choice but to "drip dry" after taking a shower. Certainly my sister was no drudge to housework!

Fastforward 20 some years: I'm exhausted, and ready to cry. The house is a mess, complete with sticky floors, a sinkful of dirty dishes, a carpet festooned liberally with pet fur, grimy tubs, a refrigerator I had to steel myself to open, and every surface cluttered with "stuff," all scented charmingly by eau de cat pee. In my determination NOT to be like my mother (putting the housework ahead of my family, and cleaning compulsively 16 hrs. a day), I had succeeded in creating not so much a home, as a squalid hovel where chaos reigned and nothing could be found. We didn't live so much as subsist there.

Surveying the disaster that my home had become, I realized that by refusing to do the housework, I secretly felt I was getting away with something, pulling the wool over the eyes of the domestic gods, perhaps. All these years later and it all boiled down to rebelling against my mother. Which was sort of like cutting my nose off to spite my face-- my mother didn't care if my house was clean or dirty! It was my family and I who suffered from the discomfort and depressing effects of filth and disorder. By not keeping house, I had only been punishing myself (and my family) all these years.

With the passage of time, I now understood my mother much better. I remember a conversation with Mom that lit up a lightbulb in my mind. Holding my infant son on my lap and watching her shake out the throw rugs and wipe down the stove yet again, I remarked, "Gee, you must really love to clean!" My mom absently shook her head. "No, it's not the cleaning that I like, it's the results of the cleaning." In that instant I began to understand that my mother cleaned not because she loved it, or found it more important than her children, but because it was one of the few things in her life that she could control.

Home alone caring for my infant son, I experienced a near-crippling sense of isolation, feeling that life was passing me by. As well as the burden of guilt that taking care of my precious and much-beloved baby wasn't "enough" for me. Always living in temporary housing and often ill from climate changes, my mother must have felt that same stultifying isolation as well. Thinking back to those early childhood years, I could now understand that my mom was probably desperately unhappy and bored being cooped up day after day with no human company except for two wilfull little girls. My dad was often away on "TDY", temporary assignment, leaving my mom to tough it out on her own.

In my adult years, I've come to know my mother as one of the most unconventional people I've ever met. An intelligent and athletic young woman, she was a star basketball player with a flair for the dramatic arts. Before marrying my father, my mother had enjoyed a career as a nurse. I'm sure she would have been much happier to have continued her nursing career, rather than staying home to take care of us.

Yet she loved us enough to be there-- enough to accept the round hole of conventionality that her squarepeg soul was never meant for. Though we neither understood nor appreciated it at the time, her love for us was reflected in the sparkling clean kitchen sink, the spotless floors, the the meals she made for us every day, and yes, even the smudgeless fridge. She did not, in fact, enjoy these tasks, but housework was the only sphere of accomplishment open to her. Sadly, our society was moving into an era where all forms of housekeeping were devalued as women began to enter the "real" workforce in unprecedented numbers, and even her own daughters looked scornfully at "housewives."

Being married to my dad, who she dearly loved but who was as different from her as night is from day, could not have been easy. He was a career NCO in the Air Force, and the only thing in life that was certain was that we were going to move again soon. My mother loved stability, my dad had itchy feet and was seized with wanderlust. She loved to stay home, he loved to travel. She liked to save money, and he liked to spend it. The things she could control in her life had bascially contracted d0wn to housekeeping. It's not so hard to understand why my mom cleaned as if her life depended on it-- in a way, it did.

My mother wanted more choices in life for us than staying home and keeping house. Having been frustrated in her own career aspirations, my mother must have envisioned a future for us where housekeeping skills would be irrelevant. Is it any wonder that Mom didn't see fit to give us a domestic education?

Looking at the chaos that surrounded me, I realized that I was not living like an adult, but a rebellious teenager. Adults lived in clean, orderly, pleasant homes that people enjoyed spending time in. My home resembled nothing so much as a neglected dorm room, with half the appeal. Though I couldn't have articulated it at the time, I had stumbled across a simple truth that Cheryl Mendelson so beautifully expresses in her book, Home Comforts. It was this: far from being meaningless drudgery beneath the attention of any intelligent person, housework matters. As Cheryl says, her grandmothers, from whom she received a thorough domestic education, "knew, in their bones if not in words-- that the way you experience life in your home is determined by how you do your housekeeping. "(Mendelson, 2002, p. 7)

Although I had no clue of how to correct my situation, I was truly sick and tired of living like a pig. I wanted a better quality of life, with a true feeling of being "at home" in our house, for myself and my family. I now had so much respect for my mother. She may not have been an educated woman, but everywhere we lived, no matter how temporarily, my mother knew how to transform a dwelling into a home, even with the limited means at her disposal.

Thanks, Mom! You rock!

P.S.: I should explain that early in their married life my sister and her husband were grad students and lived a sort of bohemian existence, where they eschewed things such as cabinets (eveything went on open shelves) and regular cleaning. It was during this period that my "drip-dry" adventure occurred. However, as they emerged into "real life" post-grad school, my sister always kept a beautiful (and clean!) home that is a joy to visit. In fact, she is the most gracious hostess I have ever seen. Clearly, my sister caught on that it is much more pleasant to live in a home that is taken care of more quickly than I did!

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