My Secret Life
I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house. An off-and-on lawyer and professor in public, in private I launder and clean, cook from the hip, and devote serious time and energy to a domestic routine not so different from the one that defined my grandmothers as "housewives." When I want a good read, I reach for my collection of old housekeeping manuals. The part of me that enjoys housekeeping and the comforts it provides is central to my character.
Until now, I have almost entirely concealed this passion for domesticity. No one meeting me for the first time would suspect that I squander my time knitting or my mental reserves remembering household facts such as the date when the carpets and mattresses were last rotated. Without thinking much about it, I knew I would not want this information about me to get around. After all, I belong to the first generation of women who worked more than they stayed home. We knew that no judge would credit the legal briefs of a housewife, no university would give tenure to one, no corporation would promote one, and no one who mattered would talk to one at a party.
Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized. When I made hand-rolled pasta for a dinner, I learned the hard way that some guests will find this annoying, as they do not feel comfortable eating a meal that they regard as the product of too much trouble. When my son was in nursery school, I made the mistake of spending a few hours sewing for him a Halloween astronaut costume of metallic cloth, earning the disgust, suspicion, and hard stares of many a fellow parent who had bought a Batman or Esmeralda costume. When I finally had to begin disclosing to friends and acquaintances just what the long book was about that I had been working on for so many years, I got a lot of those stares. Many times my courage failed me when painful silences followed my confession, "No, not a history of housework, an explanation of it - a practical book on how you make the bed and make a comfortable home," or "No, nothing about recipes, bouquets, gardening, monogramming, decorating, or crafts. It's about how a home works, not how it looks - what different fabrics are for, pantry and refrigeration storage, laundering and ironing, tuning the piano, cleaning and dusting, household records, books, laws, germs, allergies, and safety." I managed to persevere partly because not everyone responded with that stare; there was enthusiasm as well. And I was struck that no one responded with bored indifference. The topic was clearly hot - too hot for some people to handle, heartwarming to others.
Born Too Late
For me, too, the subject was actually something of a hot potato. I was raised to be a rural wife and mother, but I was born too late to find many openings for farm wives. Until I was thirteen, I lived in the Appalachian southwest corner of Pennsylvania, for most of the time on a working farm where I received an old-fashioned domestic education quite unlike the experience of the average girl in the 1950s. Early on, I learned baby care, housecleaning, laundering, gardening, cooking, embroidering, knitting, and sewing. I slopped the pigs, herded the cows, and helped out with the milking. I was proud to be able to pin a cloth diaper around a baby when I was six, and cook breakfasts of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee for a large family and the hired help when I was nine.
Because housekeeping skills got respect in my world, I looked forward to keeping a house of my own one day. It was what I wanted, and part of me was confident that I could do it well. Another part doubted practically everything I had been taught. That was because my domestic education was a battlefield in a subtle war between my two grandmothers. These ladies, both expert in needlecraft, cookery, canning, and all the other arts of the home, each held an absolute conviction that there was a right way to keep house (the one she had been brought up with) and a wrong way (all others).
My maternal grandmother was a fervent housekeeper in her ancestral Italian style, while my paternal grandmother was an equally fervent housekeeper in a style she inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland. In one home I heard Puccini, slept on linen sheets with finely crocheted edging rolled up with lavender from the garden, and enjoyed airy, light rooms with flowers sprouting in porcelain pots on windowsills and the foreign scents of garlic and dark, strong coffee. The atmosphere was open and warmly hospitable. The other home felt like a fortress - secure against intruders and fitted with stores and tools for all emergencies. There were Gay Nineties tunes on the player piano and English hymns, rooms shaded almost to darkness against real and fancied harmful effects of air and light, hand-braided rag rugs, brightly colored patchwork quilts, and creamed lima beans from the garden. My Anglo-American grandmother taught me to knit American-style, looping the yarn around the needle with a whole-arm motion. My Italian grandmother winced at the sight of this tiring and inefficient method and insisted I do it the way she did, with a barely visible, lightning flick of the last joint on her index finger. My Anglo-American grandmother sniffed at the other's idea of a gored skirt. The Italian thought it unwise to make beds, which should, she said, be aired. In one home, brows were raised and lips curled at the very idea of redeye gravy; in the other, at the idea of garlic. The Italian scarcely knew how to iron and sent out anything that needed it. The Anglo-American thought ironing the queenliest of the household arts, had every ironing aid known to humankind, and beamed at me when I had ironed-in creases in the sleeves of my cotton blouses.
Convinced that her own ways were best, each scolded me for doing things the way the other one did it, and each shook her head over the poor food and meager comforts of the other's household. Seeing my future as a housekeeper and a mother - yearning for the far-off joys of womanhood - I was faced with the dilemma of figuring out which of them knew the right way of doing things. Love of my mother and my own aesthetic nature inclined me toward things Italian, but love of my father and the society I lived in inclined me toward things American.
By the time I reached young adulthood, these questions no longer seemed to matter. Modern suburbia, where I found myself, had little interest in housekeeping and even less respect for it. Gamely I concluded that if the world no longer admired girls who sewed and cooked, in either the Italian or the American style, I would be up to date. I threw myself into studying, writing, and an academic career, and, not one to do things by halves (and determined to give myself much to regret in middle age), I made a youthful marriage to a man who ardently disliked domestic life. But my upbringing was not so easily overthrown. After an enjoyable year or two of antidomestic posturing, my true nature began to reemerge. One day when I arrived home in a rainstorm to find three wet, muddy dogs (ours and two of his friends) curled up in our unmade bed, I cried. That was a turning point. There followed a stage of rational discussion of our differences. At one point, I remember, I desperately constructed a philosophical defense of dusting under the furniture; and things got considerably less rational before the all-too-predictable end arrived.
But there is nothing like law school to take your mind off a divorce. My grandmothers, who had lived long enough to be mystified by the idea of a graduate degree in philosophy, never witnessed the further anomaly of a granddaughter who would become a lawyer. Despite the strenuous studies, as a newly single law student I reverted to domestic type. I immediately made a cozy, orderly little nest for myself in which I could study, make dinner for friends, listen to music, nurse my wounds, and live, unapologetically, the way I had wanted to for a long time. My father, amazed at the transformation, relaxed in my ample second-hand wing chair and said with a sigh, "At last you have a comfortable place to sit."
My Golden Age of domestic singledom was inevitably short-lived because I was graduated and began working excruciatingly long hours. At first I succumbed. My apartment was like a hotel room; I slept, showered, changed, and left. I did not cook, listen to music, or knit. I hired someone to clean, put up with dust on the books and grime in the corners, and entertained by meeting friends at restaurants. I felt like a cog in a machine.
Then one weekend I had a second domestic reawakening when I found myself with weekend guests who needed to be fed. Not only was I amazed to rediscover how gratifying it is to have people enjoy your cooking, but I was precipitated into some serious thought about cleanliness, sheets, the state of my pantry, and kitchen equipment. I was still making do with my half of the graduate student gear from my former life. After this, I began to try to control my hours at the office and to get at least a little time at home. Even a few hours, I found, were comforting. I got a good reading lamp to go with the wing chair, and I started on a novel. I put up a Christmas tree and invited friends with a child to help decorate it. Before long, I had a home once more, and living in it made me feel like a new person. I thought about housekeeping and how strange my life would appear to my grandmothers, and I began to collect housekeeping manuals, both old and new but mostly old, like the one my great-grandmother had used. I pored over them at bedtime, looking for my grandmothers' and mother's habits in them or finding to my astonishment that my grandmothers, both of them so right and so sure about everything, had not always done things by the book.
But most of this was socially invisible, so much so that it took me a long time to convince my new husband-to-be, when I finally met him, that I could actually cook. My former boyfriend, too, had set me down for a total housekeeping incompetent, and I had not bothered to enlighten him. He cooked and cleaned. I helped with the dishes, sometimes. When I took it upon myself to do marketing one day and came back with a reasonable collection of foods and supplies, he was floored. But my husband had to know the truth; this time I was going to start things out on the right footing. I told him straight out that the three-hole paper punch, a complete run of PC Magazine, and several collections of literary reviews did not belong in the kitchen cabinets over the sink and that I could not live with this. He shrugged, and so I married him.
Dousing the Home Fires
"Each day I long for home, long for the sight of home." - The Odyssey
The idea of writing a book about housekeeping first flashed into my mind in the laundry room a couple of years later, when I found myself hopelessly frustrated by the obscurities of garment care labels and wondering whether my laundering methods would lead to disaster. I thought about my great-grandmother's housekeeping book, and wished I had a modern book that would tell me the real story about fabrics and laundering in this day and age. With nowhere else to turn, I did what any lawyer would do: I went to read the "regs," the FTC regulations governing care labels. After painful study I learned, among other things, that an instruction to "dry clean" does not necessarily mean that you should only dry clean and not launder a garment. But overall I ended up with more questions than I started with. Besides, I reflected darkly, you shouldn't have to be a lawyer to figure out how to do the laundry.
Around this time I found myself facing many more household puzzles. I inherited my beloved uncle's grand piano, which had meant to him something like what my husband, son, home, computer, and CD player, all rolled into one, meant to me. I wanted to play it and care for it well, but had no idea whether I should vacuum out the dust in its depths, how often I should have it tuned, or what other care it might require. My husband and I had just renovated our apartment and found ourselves relying on our contractor for housekeeping advice. How, for example, should we clean and care for our newly polyurethaned wood floors? The contractor was confident and adamant: clean only with a mop slightly dampened with plain water. He insisted that we do the same in the kitchen, where he had painted a sealant over our Mexican tiles. Not only was nothing else necessary, he said sternly, but the wood floor would be damaged and the sealant dulled by anything else. This advice, which I found hard to believe, was wrong in both cases; but, intimidated by any word beginning with "poly" and by the very idea of a sealant, whatever that was, I followed it until the consequences (really dirty floors) were unmistakable. We had no notion of whether we would be better off using fluorescent or halogen or incandescent bulbs, and were unable to find someone who could lay out the pros and cons for us. And now we had a toddler and had become more conscious of cleanliness and germs. Could it be true, as the newspapers said, that soft-cooked eggs were no longer a safe food? (Yes.) Could it be true that I should start buying all those new disinfectant cleaners and soaps? (No.)
There were also reasons outside my own home that gave impetus to the idea of a housekeeping book. Over and over I found myself visiting homes where the predominant feeling was sepulchral, dusty, and deserted, or even hotel-like, as my own had once become. Perhaps a book that tried to explain not only the hows but the whys and the meanings of housekeeping was something the world could use.
I first learned that housework has meaning by observing my grandmothers. The reason they made a fuss when they saw a granddaughter doing things in a "foreign" way is that they 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. Just as you can read a culture in the way its people fold a shirt (or do not), little domestic habits are what give everybody's home the special qualities that make it their own and let them feel at home there. Understandably, each of my grandmothers wanted me to make a home in which she could feel at home.
This sense of being at home is important to everyone's well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part, it is a sense of having special rights, dignities, and entitlements - and these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security.