all of the selves we Have ever been
A neighbor stops in: “Oh, your house is so clean!”
At my stage of life, which is just inches from the grave, I can’t risk the threat of eternal damnation by being a fraud: “Well, there’s order, but I wouldn’t say it’s clean. That’s not sheers on the windows.” I survey the rest of the room eyeing dust on the shelves so thick that it looks like starched doilies.
I grew up in an era when an entire multi-generational family was judged by the quality of one woman’s housekeeping. In those years, my neighbor would not have gotten past the front door. My mother would rather have been seen in the shopping mall with curlers in her hair than to let an outsider see our dingy windows and dusty shelves.
Hence, housework became my default occupation. I never applied for the job. I was drafted against my will by virtue of being a kid, a girl-kid, and living in a house. There was no lingering suspense to the draft process. There was no multi-million dollar contract, not even an allowance! I was not offered a name-and-likeness-deal. I did not even get a t-shirt with my favorite number. Once a baby girl could stand on two feet and hold a soft rag, she was signed up. I didn’t get to choose my team, otherwise, I would have picked Agnes’s house down the street where the rooms were arranged like art exhibits. All of the furniture was covered in plastic and no one was allowed to enter those museum-like spaces.
Saturdays were game days all over America. While most of us lived in smaller homes back then, about 1100 square feet, every inch was crammed with people—six in our house, along with a dog and a couple of neighbor kids who appeared to be orphaned. Despite the crowd, there was only one bathroom which was also typical of that era. Every space was over-crowded and over-used. To do a good cleaning meant every piece of furniture and every stationary person had to be moved down the field, cleaned, and returned to the starting line. One of the younger kids was constantly being displaced on cleaning day, chased from one room to another. They were out of bounds wherever they landed.
Of course, the work-out didn’t end when I got my own place. By then, I was well conditioned, hooked on Spic ‘n Span, and a psychological prisoner of the vacuum cleaner. A weekend could not go by without a darkened dust cloth and the smell of lemon Pledge. As a mother, the duties expanded exponentially.
Now with the children grown and out of the house and full time employment behind me, I am getting out of the inside game. I will give housework 15 minutes at a time. That’s my limit. Even young, hefty, well-conditioned football players get a pause every fifteen minutes, and so I head to the bench for a water break, to nurse my injuries, talk with my team mates, connect with the audience, and see how things look on TV.
Between games I’m happy to study the play books. I‘ve got a stack of House Beautiful magazines. I consider them a kind of pornography for the housekeeping derelict. It all looks slick, salacious, and out of my league. I am convinced that it must be illegal.
It’s a new season. Here on the fourth down of the final quarter, I punt.
Let a new team carry the dirtball.
Running behind schedule one Sunday morning,
Aunt Addie grabbed her full length fur coat and put it on over her bra and panties. She slipped on some high heeled shoes and headed for church. Addie made no secret of her attire as the family left the house. No one was surprised. We all knew that Aunt Addie had reached a compromise with nature long before we were born. Nature would not defy her. Neither would we.
We also knew that if Aunt Addie got it into her mind to remove the coat during mass, she would not blink an eye or bother to look right or left. She would simply slide the luxurious fur off her shoulders and drape it over the back of the pew. When mass was over, she might put the coat back on or hang it over her arm and walk home. Aunt Addie’s philosophy was: go bold or go home, and if going home, go home boldly.
Once on a crowded department store escalator, Aunt Addie broke wind, thunder really, that trailed her for the entire ride down. She never flinched or even lowered an eyelash. She simply enjoyed the ride and stepped off at the bottom like royalty. Had Addie lived to see Donald Trump descend the escalator to launch his presidential campaign, she would have dismissed the performance: “A fart on an escalator? That’s already been done.” And then she would have inhaled deeply on her long cigarette and blown a smoke ring for emphasis.
Addie envisioned herself a kind of Auntie Mame, that Manhattan-dwelling, flamboyant, free-spirited aunt with an objectionable lifestyle, and a friend who ran a nudist school. Auntie Mame is famous for saying: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Aunt Addie never missed a meal, and, generally, she was doing the cooking. We rode the waves of her moods into countless adventures.
Erasmus, Mark Twain, or somebody in between is credited with saying that the clothes make the man. I’m not so sure. It is my observation that women like my Aunt Addie who came from simple immigrant roots were fully formed before they purchased the fur coats and the designer fashions. Addie was smart enough to know that clothes gave her access, got her invited to the banquet, and so she acquired them. But those wardrobe items were simply props that embellished her already big personality and fed her appetite for living.
Some of us fret about having nothing to wear to the banquet, or that what we have isn’t good enough. We’re ashamed of the state of our underwear. And so, we don’t attend. Aunt Addie would have had none of that. She would have said, “Grab your coat, Doll, we’re going! Meet me in the Cadillac. It’s not the clothes, Doll; it’s the courage.”
Robinson Crusoe had a right-hand man.
Crusoe discovered his faithful assistant while shipwrecked on a deserted island. Crusoe named the guy Friday after the day of the week on which they met.
The Guy Friday role didn’t stick outside the confines of fiction (and colonialism and slavery). Men may have sidekicks, but not doting subservient male assistants. Men are too competitive with each other, and a subservient male is not…well, not really a man in the cultural opinion. Hence, the right-hand man became the right-hand woman, a Girl Friday, someone who assists men in powerful positions. Think Della Street to Perry Mason.
Men need help attending to the details, but they don’t like to admit it. For too many years, powerful men acted as though they were doing the ladies a favor by “letting them work,” allowing them a front row seat to power, so long as they dusted off the chair and served the coffee while it was hot. They might even have paid the ladies a few bucks to buy a pretty dress.
Despite the fact that Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, described Della Street as fast as hell on her feet, and someone who had been places, it was Perry Mason who got his own show. Perry Mason was known to put up a good fight in the courtroom and come out a winner, and men are known for the classic response of fight or flight when under stress. Women, on the other hand, fall back on tend and befriend which leaves them cleaning up a lot of the aftermath of fight and flight. Women do the stuff that men don’t want to do. Rather than admit it is important work too, women’s work has been minimized in value because value has been calculated by what men found interesting.
Men had it all because women did it all. The division of labor was not a balanced equation. Men could build careers and power because they could single-mindedly focus on careers and power. A woman’s attention had to be divided, and her time shared with household duties, childbearing, spouse, children, neighbors, community, aging parents, bosses, co-workers…
Della Street was certainly smart enough to have her own law firm, but if Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t find a job in one, Della was at an even greater disadvantage. Today, she might get that job, but she must also be prepared to take care of everything else including homeschooling the kids through a pandemic, caring for aging parents and in-laws, chairing the PTA, keeping everyone, including the pets, up-to-date on their health care and vaccinations... She might be doing all of this while also recovering from the wounds of war and military service, or while recovering from the many transitions of serving as a military spouse. Men are judged on one role: man. Women serve as wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, coworkers, and are judged ceaselessly on an endless set of expectations.
People discard these kinds of thoughts coming from women as “man-hating.” It is another form of disregard for women’s needs and opinions. It turns the conversation into a fight from which women too often flee. This is a necessary and timely conversation. It is not about starting a fight with men. It is about tending to the contributions of women: caring for others matters, attending to details matters, cleaning up messes matters. The world doesn’t work without it--for women or for men.
A man calls his faithful assistant Friday, a practical name reminding him of the day of the week on which they met. To get Friday to do the dirty work, Crusoe enslaved him. Women don’t want to be enslaved. Women do want to work and perform well in all of their roles chosen and assigned. And while women need some help too, they don’t have faithful assistants or servants; they have friends. And they tend to them every day of the week.
Let’s face it, if all the men in the country took the same day off, there might be peace on earth. If all of the women took the same day off, the country would collapse, proof that women ARE infrastructure. Women tend and befriend, and they bend. We can’t allow them to break. The country owes a debt to women who keep the world working. Mitch McConnell, Joe Manchin, and the rest of you who show up in clean laundry--the bill is past due. Women need faithful assistance too.
(And, here, I must give a shout-out to my own Gal Friday. She came into my life as a coworker when I was shipwrecked in Columbus, Ohio. She had landed on the same deserted island a few months earlier. We sat next to each other at work for many years. She was a faithful co-worker and has remained a faithful friend. During the pandemic, I experienced a period of declining vision which increased my isolation. My Gal Friday came faithfully every Friday evening to offer friendship, companionship, assistance, and adventure. She has been my steady, unbending infrastructure in a time of biological and social collapse. My Gal Friday is pretty good Saturday through Thursday too! I am grateful to you, Kristi, well beyond these few words.)