EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #4

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Homemaking, 1943

After Anna’s mother had a cup of black coffee and a piece of dry toast alone in the kitchen early in the morning, she squeezed oranges and strained the juice (because it was healthier than canned, and Anna’s father liked the taste better), and then cooked oatmeal for Anna’s breakfast and a separate breakfast of bacon and eggs, sunny side up, for Anna’s father, who ate later in his bathrobe and slippers while reading The New York Times. During the school year, she also made Anna’s lunch, to take in a brown paper bag.

When the eating was over, she cleared the kitchen table and wiped it clean of crumbs, after which she filled the kitchen sink with hot water and suds and washed all the breakfast dishes, the double boiler used for making oatmeal, the greasy frying pan, the juice squeezer and strainer, and the coffee pot. These she dried with a kitchen towel and put away. She scrubbed the kitchen sink clean and took the garbage out to the incinerator at the end of the third-floor hall.

Next she aired and made the beds. Then it was time to dust. Every day she went over every surface of every piece of furniture in every room with an oiled cloth, picking up each thing on top of each table and bureau and giving it a good wipe as she went. After that she swept the floors and ran a carpet sweeper over the rugs in the living room, Anna’s little room and the big bedroom. Once a week, instead of using the sweeper she pulled the heavy vacuum from the front hall coat closet, not only to give the rugs a more thorough cleaning but also to use one of the attachments on the sofa, two upholstered chairs and drapes in the living room.

Last, she cleaned the toilet, bathtub and sink — where Anna’s father left a lot of hairs — and washed the bathroom floor and kitchen linoleum on her hands and knees, using a pail of soapy water and old torn-up sheets and towels to wipe with. She said she couldn’t reach into all the corners and cracks with just a mop. Often she got through all this by eleven in the morning. Then she could brush her teeth, wash her face, change her housecoat and apron for a skirt and blouse, and put on some lipstick for doing the marketing, usually her only outing of the day.

Once a month, though, she did what she called really heavy cleaning, which meant that she washed all the window panes inside, and outside as far as she could reach up without falling out of the window, with ammonia and water and crumpled old newspapers, and also took down the curtains in the two bedrooms and the kitchen, ran them through the washing machine in the basement of the building, and ironed them before putting them up again. On those days she didn’t go out and they would have leftovers for dinner.

“Why do you have to clean so often?” asked Anna. Even in summer with the windows open, she couldn’t see that anything except the window sills was actually dirty.

“It’s easier if I do it every day,” said her mother. “Before things get really filthy.”

That didn’t make sense to Anna. She would rather spend a whole day once a week cleaning up an apartment that needed it than waste half a day every day keeping a clean one absolutely perfect.

Her mother considered this opinion for a moment but dismissed it. “Your father likes a clean home.”

“What do you care,” said Anna, “if the apartment is already clean and he can’t tell the difference?”

Anna’s mother shook her head. “How do I know what he would notice or not notice?” She put the carpet sweeper away in the broom closet and hung her apron on an inside hook. “Besides,” she added, “even if you were right, which you’re not — what else would I do?”

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7 thoughts on “EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #4

  1. Yes, very sad. And it gets sadder. (Wait for #6.) But in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s that’s what housewives without enough money to hire a maid, especially immigrants from Europe like Anna’s mother, had to do. There were no dishwashers, very few frozen foods, and no convenience foods. Refrigerators were small, so shopping had to be done at least every other day. This particular mother may have been somewhat more meticulous than most, but who would do the work if the wife didn’t? They also ironed in the afternoons (except for men’s business shirts, which went to the Chinese laundry), while listening to soap operas on the radio to distract from the boredom of what they were doing. A woman could be a teacher or a nurse (if her parents had paid for the higher education) or a secretary or a bookkeeper (if she had taken a commercial course in high school) or a saleswoman in a store — but only if her husband didn’t mind. Generally speaking, though, woman’s place was in the home. Another expression, less applicable here: “Keep her barefoot and pregnant.” No wonder the next generation were the first feminists!

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  2. These stories are amazing, and they bring me right back to my childhood and my own grandparents, and how my grandmother filled her day. I am working on a story now set in 1918 – I hope I can capture the period as well as you do.

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    • As you know, “capturing” time in one’s writing is mostly in the details. I was alive in 1943, so for me such details are mostly many small acts of remembering. But 1918 strikes me as really hard; it will also require imagination, of which — alas — I don’t have much. I suspect you have much much more. 🙂

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