It’s the Homemaker’s interior landscape, the house. The Sahara of the carpeted public living spaces is dry and barren — no kids allowed. But the kitchen is the pumping, quivering, juicy heart. It alternates between hot and cold, furious work and rest as the sun rises and sets each day. It’s her command center and the war room for bill triage and high-level negotiations of every stripe. The bedrooms each hold their secrets, but the kitchen is the village square of her life.
If you’re fortunate enough to be invited to the inner sanctum after the school bus leaves but before the vacuum comes out and the coffee’s still hot, you’ll be invited to pick out a mug from the family cabinet, not the china cabinet. Oh, don’t worry about judgement, that’s already been dispatched. You know where the milk and sugar are, too, so help yourself. Match your mood or make a statement, sit and bitch or just sit and sip. You’re the lucky guest of the interior reality star.
I grew up in a suburban Cape Cod style house. There were supposed to be two bedrooms upstairs, but my bedroom was the only one finished. The other space held the old Christmas decorations and some family ephemera. I assume for economic reasons, my room remained unheated. But since our house was located on the coast of central New Jersey, winters never got THAT cold. I slept under a bunch of blankets and when it was really, really cold I had a strange urine colored electric blanket that had a scary label on it warning the user not to fall asleep with the blanket while in use (?).
My mother attributed my robust health to sleeping without heat. Which was a convenient belief because both of my parents were smokers. But the thing I remember most deeply is lying in bed late at night, the house dark and quiet, my bedside digital clock flipping each minute with a gentle, hypnotic tick. If I stuck my face outside the covers I swear I could see my breath.
And then I’d hear our family mutt making her rounds. We had hardwood floors and I could hear her nails tapping as she made a rote circle through the downstairs. Sometimes she’d give a low throaty growl — a warning to anything passing through the suburbs to move along. Then I’d hear her tentative steps up the slippery, uncarpeted staircase to my room. I’d count the paw-falls to number twelve when she’d make the carpeted landing (Because my room had a deep green wall-to-wall carpet that I imagined was the color of Middle Earth).
I’d hear her gentle panting, because she was an old dog by this time, and I’d smell her damp dog-breath as she came up to the side of the bed. I’d stick my arm out of the blanket pile and pat the bed, encouraging her to come up and warm my feet. She would jump up silently and stake out a spot at the foot, facing the door to sense when my father got up, because he was the alpha dog.
And then, finally, I’d fall asleep.
“Mom’s coming in hot,” Josh called out from his perch at the front window. Our siblings threw open their notebooks to simulate their passion for homework. I turned back to the boiling water and took the tube of dry spaghetti in my hand like Thor. BAM! I threw it into the pot.
Our mom always worked and it made us self-reliant ~ free-range children before that was a radical idea. It didn’t mean that we didn’t screw up or fight, but it did mean we had each others’ back. Mom was the Alpha of our pack — an unperturbed general manager of the household. “Lean in,” “Just do it” — our Mom didn’t need a catch phrase to motivate her to “have it all.” She just lived and loved enough to have five kids, and she considered them indentured help, humorous distractions and objects of wonder.
But when she came home in that Piranha Hour before dinner we each knew our pivotal role in getting dinner on the table — FAST! Because, well, she who must be obeyed first must be fed. Then we could talk, share, tease and cry with the shrill abandon of five kids fed, loved and unbound.
I suspect I’m not alone when a glance in the mirror shocks me, because it’s my mother’s face looking back at me. Why does this unsettle me? My mom is a feisty woman. The first generation of her family to go to college, she became a teacher because that’s what her parents told her to be. She missed both the “swinging 60’s” sexual revolution and the “consciousness raising 70’s” because she was too busy working and raising her family. Both of my parents are part of the Silent Generation, children of parents who lived through the Depression and learned the best way to get along was to conform, work hard and strive for security above all else.
I’ve grappled with identity and transition all my life. Not that I’m confining this conversation to women, but I’ve found that as a group we spend a good portion of our energy managing physical change throughout our lives. We undergo many physical changes marked by our bodies: as we pass from girlhood into adulthood, from month to month, during and after pregnancy, and then, menopause. And I’m not even going to address the themes of body image and not-so-subtle pressures to maintain a standard of beauty bench-marked by youth.
We also manage emotional and psychological change as become workers, wives, partners, mothers, bosses, caregivers, empty-nesters, grandmothers, even widows. All of these changes occur over timelines that vary from woman-to-woman, and we look to our friends and elders for insight and reassurance that we’re not going through this alone (or to reassure us that we’re not crazy, weird or delusional). So after all this time and effort I put in working on my own issues, why wouldn’t I just look like an older, wiser version of myself? In my mind I picture my face at 21, but it’s just framed by grey hair and a couple of crinkles at the corners of my eyes and lips. I forget about the changes the years and environment have made to my skin, that gravity slowly pulls at my cheeks and chin(s). My own twenty-something daughter has taken to raking her hands through my hair to “see her future” in the pattern of its graying.
But just because I resemble my mother it doesn’t mean I AM my mother. We’ve both had different life experiences and outlooks. Is our shared biology destiny? Or is it a form of fear that shocks me? I’m fortunate that my mother is still here – so I can compare the arc of my aging to hers, but I’m struck by the realization that I’m just as limited by biology and time. Lately my mom speaks about her decreasing energy, and how limited she feels by her body and its aches. She is frustrated that everything just seems to take more time and effort, and I get it.
So I am face-to-face with what really scares me, and it isn’t that I’m turning into my mother, it’s that I’m watching the future — my future — unspool before me. The good news is my mom is independent and healthy, but there is still so much more I want to do, to create, to see, to work on. As a greedy child I thought my supply of sunny days was infinite, but as an adult I’ve learned that the amount of both sunny and rainy days is finite, and I want to make them all count. Which makes this blog all the more important to me – and grateful for the eyes who read it.
I never met Tante Goldie, but I’m proud to flash her moniker from time to time.
Little Estelle had a beloved aunt named Goldie, her father’s sister. Since Estelle lost her mother at a very young age, the other female adults in her life made great efforts to spend time with her. Estelle and her Tante would go to the beach in Brooklyn in the summer. Goldie was a very strong swimmer and she and Estelle would swim way out past the wave breaks, lock legs and float in the sea. It was magical — until the time Estelle broke their leg chain and tried to stand up. She realized that they were so far out in the ocean that she couldn’t touch the bottom and she panicked. Goldie brought her back to the beach, but Estelle was too frightened to go back into the ocean. By the time I met Estelle she proclaimed she didn’t care much for the beach — all that sand, but she did allow that early experience made her afraid of the water, too.
I’ve never seen a picture of Goldie at any age, but in my imagination she is tall, statuesque with a formidable bosom. She has the large Spegiel cranium and curly blond hair. I have seen photos of her brother — the Guitar Man resembles his grandfather to a great degree. But rather than taking the lazy (and humorous) way out and imagining Goldie resembling G-man in drag, I think of her as an athletic woman. Tan, fit and strong, but she’s also brainy and confident. I can see her playing tennis and then going for a refreshing swim. Then I see her in reading glasses, and I can imagine her having robust arguments with anybody trying to limit her (or any woman’s) freedom.
The story, or family party-line, is that Goldie was a communist, and she was ostracized by the family because of her political leanings. I have no way of verifying this, but Estelle told me that she did reconnect with Goldie herself as an adult. She didn’t keep the reunion a secret but she didn’t broadcast it to the family either. Despite her communist leanings, Goldie did all right for herself. She even gave Estelle a hand-me-down fur jacket that in turn was handed down to me. It’s a short, mink jacket that is almost too warm to wear. And there is the whole moral issue over wearing fur that always loops though the back of my mind.
So “Tante Goldie,” the communist vintage fur coat, usually only comes out on very cold occasions of high importance. Bless you, Tante Goldie, and the warmth of your spirit.
I’m taking a break for a quick post to wish everybody a wonderful Thanksgiving this week. Whether you are the host or the guest you have an obligation to savor the food and the day.
Hosts: I know that this week brings a frenzy of planning, cleaning, shopping, searching (for the gravy boat, recipes and table extensions), and cooking. Your guests are going to love the meal, and you already know the ones you want to join you in the kitchen to “help.” Please remember to relax and enjoy your guests.
Guests: I know you are grateful for the invitation and will show up on time, praise the cook, and follow all pertinent instructions. Please remember to enjoy yourself responsibly and prepare your list of safe conversation topics, unless you want to remembered for the years to come as “THAT” guest.
So, in order to capture the spirit of “pre-Thanksgiving” (which in many ways brings more laughs and memories that the actual holiday) here’s a “BEFORE” photo of a turkey prepped to enter the oven, a symbol of our homespun spirit.