My mother grew up on a Maine farm where dirt was what made plants grow. I imagine her mother taught her something about cleaning. Otherwise, the farmhouse kitchen linoleum would never have been a place for me to be seated in my toddler overalls, a box with muffin crumbs between my chubby, outstretched legs and a chicken in my lap, waving one finger at Dad’s camera as if I was practicing to preach. Still, cleaning was never high on Mom’s list of priorities.
One of my vivid childhood memories is of Mom standing on a scaffold, six or eight feet off the ground, holding a wooden clapboard in place as Dad nailed new siding on the back of our house. I remember vividly another day before we owned a house. Six of us lived in a cramped singlewide near the military base where Dad worked. At the moment I recall, Mom was wrapped in her apron of the era: cream, patterned with tiny men and women formed of yellow and black triangles, almost certainly hand-sewn. The four children, all aged 6 and under, were playing in the “dining area” while she worked. She turned toward us, lifting from the oven a pan of hot, freshly baked cream puffs. She set the pastries on top of the range to cool, then began pulling out milk and eggs for a from-scratch vanilla custard filling.
Who bakes cream puffs with four little children crowding her feet?
It could be a woman driven by her generation’s version of Pinterest shaming. Cream puffs are listed among “50 Basic Recipes for Beginners” in that era’s Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. (Other “basic recipes” included mayonnaise, fruit jam, doughnuts, chicken timbales, and “Canning Fruits and Vegetables.”) But my mother’s intense engagement with the kitchen could also represent the drive of a woman who took great joy in her own competence. I tend to think that my capable mother took the Fannie Farmer list as a challenge that she expected to master, easily and with pleasure.
Mom mastered many challenges during my childhood. Raising five children to capable adulthood is challenge enough for many. Doing it within a tightly constrained income, so that “shopping” was mostly done at the Navy Relief thrift store, was another. Still another challenge was renovating the old farmhouse we bought, that came with knob and tube wiring, an antique coal furnace, and a kitchen whose “upgrades” to date mostly consisted of replacing the 1913 hand pump with running water.
I don’t remember Mom falling under her burdens. I remember her pressing into a blackberry thicket to collect colander after colander of fat, finger-staining fruit. I remember her peeling and slicing entire sacks of fall apples to cook into chunky, cinnamon-scented applesauce that we ate warm with vanilla ice cream before she packed the rest into the freezer. I remember how hot brown molasses would billow and foam when she added baking soda, just before stirring the sloppy mess into a giant vat of popped corn for holiday cornballs. I remember Mom leading her five little ducklings on summer bicycle rides down country roads, and I can imagine her sitting beside the farm pond of her childhood home as we swam and rowed and capsized the unfortunate “boats” we built ourselves. I remember her fingers endlessly knitting yarn into hats and mittens – first for all of us, then for local charities.
I have almost no memory of Mom with mop or dust rag or vacuum cleaner in hand. I can’t remember Mom polishing furniture. I can see her cleaning up thrift store furniture finds and repainting them. I can remember the formula for her homebrewed paint stripper. But I can’t see her dusting. She must have cleaned floors, especially during the early spring weeks that we in Maine call “mud season.” I just can’t recall it.
Nor can I recall any significant lessons about housekeeping at her hands. When I was a young bride, I purchased a couple of paperback books that taught me how to clean my house. A little later, I subscribed to a website that encouraged me to create at least one small vision of order in my generally chaotic home. That wasn’t a new idea to me. Mom and I both had our little ordered visions. We both created 3D still life arrangements on mantels and in china cabinets and on bookshelves and on side tables. We hung our arranged histories on the walls of our homes. Neither of us looked past those lovely spots and imagined our homes “chaotic.” We both thought of our homes as “busy” places where “creative” people had “projects underway.” As for the floors … of course the place you walk gets dirty!
But during the years when my sisters and I were young single women sharing apartments with other young single women, each of us stumbled across a startling revelation. One day in each of our lives, after living with women who knew how to keep house, each of us returned to our mother’s home and discovered a thin gray film we’d never seen. Our house, we realized, was unkept. We each remarked to ourselves:
“This house is dusty!”
Each, on her own day, grabbed a rag and a vacuum and sought to correct the failings of the family home. Each returned to her own adult home and either trained herself in the habits of our time’s hygienic housekeeping or relapsed into the busy, disordered – even dirty – way of life we learned at our mother’s knee.
There are no “dust bunnies” in my home today. Dust gathers itself into ferocious gray wolves, trumpeting elephants, and charging rhinoceroses, ready to burst from the caverns they’ve found under furnishings and thunder across the savannahs of my floors. Accumulated neglect would like to overpower my day, my time, my mind. “Dirty!” it roars. “Unsanitary!” it shouts. It bellows at the last, “Bad housekeeper!”
Like a powerful incantation, a single sentence from memory holds back the hostile judgments. The words come in my mother’s voice, issuing from under merry brown eyes:
“If your floor’s not clean enough to eat off, don’t eat off it.”
I won’t, Mom. I promise.
Today, instead of trying to eat off my floor, I’ll probably bake something yummy. I’ll finish sewing curtains for the dining room and repairing the side table that has loose joints. I might break up the ice that slicks the driveway or make soup from the bone broth that has chilled to gelatin in the refrigerator.
After all of that, I could decide to hunt a dusty gray elephant or a rhinoceros. But probably not. I don’t plan to let beasts made from dead dust eat up my life. I plan to consume my own life, nourished by what gives me joy, unafraid of the kinds of wild things that dissolve into clouds at each footfall.
You can keep a house or you can make a home. Mom taught me which was most important.
Originally published in the 2017 anthology Cherish Her, edited by Alnita Montague Johnson.