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.
Yesterday was a wonderful day, a triumph of change, of many changes coming together. Thanksgiving is Steve’s favorite holiday, and what’s not to love? Fall colors, harvest time, lots of great food, a crisp chill in the air, wood smoke, and an all-pervading sense of gratitude for the process of life.
We’ve hosted Steve’s family for dinner at our place for the past 4 years. “Our Place”, however, is not just a home. It’s an online book business, which means that our inventory is stored under the same roof. That roof was replaced this year, bringing inches of old cedar pieces and dust down on top of our piles of books. It was a mess. The clean up and resorting was enormous. But Thanksgiving was the deadline: we wanted to host as usual. Piles of books, CDs, video tapes and packing materials carpeted all the rooms and stairwells in the house. We literally had to pick our way through for months. Steve took infinite trips up the narrow, steep stairs to the attic, laden with heavy boxes and stacks. But yesterday was a triumph! The place was clean, the table glistened, the food was colorfully delicious, and everyone had a great time. And Steve got to put his feet up and read aloud in Italian.
We are really getting good at team work. The next triumphant convergence will occur tomorrow, when we get together with all my children and their ‘significant otters’ for a holiday which we call ‘Galassoween’. Five couples, two generations and as many various lifestyles merge to create a feast of conversation and edible togetherness. And it will take place in the house that my daughter and her fiance have rebuilt. (see this post, “Harvesting Hope”) I’m looking forward to it! (but first, I have a lot of dishes to wash…)
I have just finished reading a very informative book by Jane Goodall on the subject of Food. Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating has led me to reconsider the way I buy and cook and eat food. Much of it is based on common sense and natural practices (What would a chimp choose to eat? Have you ever seen an overweight chimp in the wild?), and much of it exposes the insanity that is our factory food production here in the “civilized” world. How civilized is it to cram thousands of chickens together in a cage, remove their beaks so that they can’t peck each other to death, pump them with antibiotics and force them to cannibalize their own kind by giving them non-vegetarian feed? And then to slaughter them, ship their polluted flesh over thousands of miles burning fossil fuels, and eat it? I was not thinking about that when I bought Super Saver packages of chicken breasts at my local super market. I think about it now.
And here is the surprising gift of hope: my children have been thinking about this for years. I didn’t lead the way.
Here is another arena of hope: reclaiming, salvaging and recycling living space. My daughter and her fiance purchased a home that had been severely water damaged and mold and mildew infested. The inhabitants had moved out to hospice care and died; the house was abandoned, but the water wasn’t shut off. In the winter freeze and thaw, the pipes broke and flooded the place. What a mess! But Joe comes from a family line of carpenters and construction wizards. He has completely re-worked the house: plumbing, electric, heating, floor plan and surfaces. He’s gotten neighbors, friends and family involved in the labor and in donating fixtures. The final step will be relocating the back yard garden. You see, this house is just a few doors down the street from the one they’ve rented for the past 3 years. So, by their wedding date one year from this month, they will have their own home and garden. They are marvelous role models for sustainable living, and I am so proud of them! Yesterday I went down to visit and take pictures. They sent me home with a bunch of produce from their garden. I am so grateful and awed by how life unfolds. The next generation is certainly capable of taking responsibility and working hard in a sustainable direction. Let’s just hope many of them choose to!
I don’t have a television, so I don’t see a lot of commercials. Still, I find NBA games on the internet and catch a few ads in the process. There’s one for a fried chicken franchise that particularly bothers me. Here’s the set-up: two teenaged kids have made a rare venture out of their rooms to join their parents for dinner. They are still plugged into their media devices and never speak or make eye contact with the camera or their parents. The African-American family sits in the living room with a bucket of chicken on the coffee table. Mom & Dad tell the camera that the chicken is the occasion for them to have this special “family” experience. Dad jokes that if the batteries run down, they might actually have a conversation.
Sigh. Is this an accurate snapshot of our current culture? Rewind about 100 years.
I’m reading a book called Nothing To Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young. The author describes her life in North Dakota during the Great Depression. Her mother had acquired land as a homesteader, married and raised 6 kids on the farm. Her sisters struggled to become educated and get jobs as school teachers in local one-room schoolhouses. One particularly brutal winter, their parents found it more sensible to drop off the 18-year-old daughter, the teacher, with the two younger sisters at school and let them stay there during the week instead of transporting them back and forth through the snow drifts by horse-drawn wagon. The week turned into months. Fresh supplies were delivered every week, but these 3 young ladies spent that winter relying on their own resourcefulness for their daily life — with no electricity, simply a coal-burning furnace in the basement and a woodstove with one burner in the classroom. How is that possible? I’m sure that life was one that their parents had modeled for years.
Compare these two snapshots and imagine the changes that have swept through our country. What has “adult living” become? What do we model for our children these days? What skills are being delegated to machines or service companies or ‘experts’ that used to be more universal and personal? Besides modeling tasking skills, how do we model social and moral skills in this decade?
When more families were farming, children grew up alongside their parents and were incorporated into communal activities. They helped milk the cows, tend the garden, and make the food and clothing they all needed to live. In the 50s, when more families lived in cities and suburbs, Dad would drive off in the morning and work out of sight of his kids all day while Mom would turn on appliances to do the chores around home. The kids learned consumerism. Then the Moms left the house and went into the workforce leaving the kids in daycare. In 1992, someone came up with “Take Your Daughters To Work Day”. That was expanded to include boys a decade later. What was first perceived as a Feminist issue of role modeling was recognized as a parenting void: children had no clue how adults spent their work days.
Musing about these changes made me consider what my own children had learned from my husband and me. My daughter made a calligraphy sign when she was in High School: “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it.” (Clarence B. Kelland) She was 23 when her father died. What we intended to model and what she actually learned are most likely two different things. One thing I do know. She did learn to cook her own chicken.
© 2014, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
Home. A weighty concept in some ways, but also tending toward the sentimental. It can connote fortification, shelter….and yet, homey can be quaint and trivial. We invent and reinvent our relationship to home throughout our lives. A place to go to, a place to run from, a place without, a place within. Maybe the truth about ‘home’ is that it is changing and fluid. That’s what I want to illustrate.
This photo was taken out of my bedroom window, from within the warm nest where I find safety, comfort, and respite. And yet, the window is transparent. It doesn’t completely shield me from the cold visually, nor does it keep me from feeling it (it’s an old drafty house, not well insulated at all!). It lets me come face to face with the physical realities of frost and even pulls me beyond the immediate perimeter of my house, across the street, up into the trees, and all the way out of the Earth’s atmosphere to the Moon. And still, this is all my home, too. The Universe is where I live. Home is near as well as far. And why should I not feel safety and belonging in all of the world’s manifestations? Cold and death and distance and infinity do not annihilate me, nor do they exalt me. They are familiar and comforting, too. I do not control my home as I do not control the weather…I live in it. And life is bigger than most of us imagine.
For another picture of home, mundane and temporal but nevertheless real and interesting, my last post was about our home business, Scholar and Poet Books. Please click here and take a look!