My mother’s birthday is but 2 days away now. I’ve told you a bit about her specific talents in music, cooking and parenting, but she also possesses a general talent for being organized and efficient. She is a Domestic Engineer, by her own reckoning. She comes by it honestly, for her much-admired father was a professional electrical engineer. Her administrative skills are well-developed and have been applied to a multitude of volunteer positions, from Girl Scout leader to chamber concert coordinator to clerk of the Vestry to museum archivist. She has raised money, written newsletters, cataloged artifacts, designed living and office space, kept detailed financial records, chronicled events, communicated, consulted, collaborated, and carried on for so many organizations that I could never recall them all. To my knowledge, she has not received any remuneration since graduating from college. Nevertheless, she is highly professional and knows how to get a job done. Because of her, my awareness of basic functional habits goes back to my early childhood. Here are 10 of her specific instructions.
1) Write it down. Whatever it is, a shopping list or a line of poetry, if you want to remember and refer to it, write it down. My mother’s tiny notes could be found in any number of spiral bound flip pads in our house. She’s not so untidy as to leave them on single Post-Its or envelopes. I now carry Moleskine pads in my hiking backpack because even on the trail, my thoughts are harmonized with the echo of my mother’s admonition: write it down.
2) Use double-entry bookkeeping for your finances. With numbers, it’s better to write it down twice. (Sorry, Mom. I stopped doing this a long time ago, and I also don’t balance my checkbook anymore. Online debit records are all I’ve got now. Don’t worry; it’ll do.)
3) Label it. Remember those label-making guns that punched letters one by one onto a plastic strip? That was a bit much for Mom, but her laundry marking pen, white cotton bias tape and adhesive tape were always on hand. With four girls in the house and summer camp every year, you can bet she was keen to keep everything straight. Even our dolls were marked at the nape of the neck with our initials. Why else would my doll be called ‘P Baby’?
4) Never go upstairs empty-handed. (You’d laugh, Mom, at how many times I have said this to Steve as he’s moving books up and down from the attic.) I went so far as to purchase stair baskets when I had 4 kids and a big house. Making every effort efficient was my mother’s goal, within the house and in the broad world. So…
5) Plan your errands well in advance. For most of their marriage, my parents shared one car. On the one or two days in the week when she had a vehicle, her route was specifically engineered to save time and gas. There was no “running out to pick up something” at odd times of the day. Everything — bank, library, dry-cleaners, grocery store, filling station, school, church office — was expertly orchestrated in one trip. I have internalized this mode. I do not “shop” or browse or dilly-dally when going to procure something. Even a Christmas tree. (ask Susan) This trait drives Steve nuts sometimes. It’s not spontaneous; it’s not in the moment; it’s not an interesting way to travel. I have to turn off the “get the job done” mentality deliberately when our purpose is experience.
6) Clip coupons and keep them organized. This is part of planning your errands and shopping trips. Mom’s library scissors were always in the center drawer of her desk. When Dad was done with reading the paper, she’d get to work. It’s a habit that can get out of hand, though. I always kept a card file box full of coupons, most of which had expired long ago, in my kitchen. Finally, when I moved, I pitched it, but not without hesitation. I now keep just a handful under a magnet on my fridge.
7) Waste not. This is deep in Mom’s blood and deep in mine, Scottish heritage and all. Keep those bones for soup stock. Keep that packing material for your next mailing. Keep those worn jeans for shorts and patches. And you can bet that with 4 girls, the youngest (me) was always in hand-me-downs! I think most Americans have lost this value long ago, much to the disadvantage of the planet.
8) Recycle. Mom was doing this before it was convenient. There was no curb-side recycling in the 60s, but along with her other errands, she’d visit the recycling center with paper sacks of old newspapers, boxes of aluminum cans, and glass bottles separated by color. There was no plastic recycling then.
9) Load your appliances correctly. Dishwashers and washing machines and dryers take lots of energy…your own as well as the power company’s. Learn to pack them well. My mother was always able to get more into the dishwasher after I’d loaded it. I’ve gone back to washing dishes by hand, but I’m always trying to figure out how to use less water and fit more on the drying rack. It’s a good practice.
10) Put the kitchen to bed before you retire. A clean kitchen in the morning is a lot nicer to wake up to. A clean house is nicer to come home to after a vacation. I think of the ending scenes in PBS programs like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and The Boston Pops concerts: the char woman cleaning up before the lights go out, and the stage is ready for the next installment. It gives me a very settled feeling to follow this example. Of course, tidy endings aren’t always attainable. That’s life. I do my best.