What We Hand Down

Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)

When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.

I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.

******************

“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.

Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.

“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”

“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.

“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”

And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.

Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.

We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.

Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”

We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.

But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?

*********

Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.

So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.

He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.

“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”

He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.

The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.

As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.

He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.

Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.

So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.

************

There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.

Because lots of things have happened.

Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.

Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’

They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.

There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.

And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.

So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.

Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?

And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household.  I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.

Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.

******************

We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.

And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.

I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.

“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.

********************

Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree.  I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.

That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.

My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.

But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.

Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?

********************

Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.

So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.

I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.

And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.

He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.

He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.

***********

I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.

And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.

************

I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.

A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.

 

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Saturday Cleaning (This Week, a Lick and a Promise)

Saturday morning, 9:30… breakfast complete, the day’s chores begin.

The boyos clomp downstairs and begin chuddering around, packing up bins of clunking glass bottles and chingling tin cans.  They heft and stomp and chide each other. They are going recycling. They’ll drive up to the bins at the city barns, behind the new building at the College, and they will empty out the totes they’ve packed into Mark’s  trunk. They’ll stuff the aluminum and plastic and glass and paper into all the right compartments, pack up the empty totes, slam the trunk closed, and then they’ll head over to the bakery outlet store.

There, they’ll buy a couple of loaves of cheap white bread, a package of English muffins, a single serving peach pie, and a sleeve of little chocolate doughnuts. They’ll throw in two bags of cheese curls–the kind that are so cheesily powdered, they turn our lips and fingers disgustingly neon orange. (And still, I can’t stop eating them.)

The boyos might stop at the wholesale grocer, too, and buy little chunks of assorted cheese (cheddar, hot pepper, colby-jack) packed  in a baggie, a couple of long, skinny, pungent beef jerky sticks, a one-serving bag of nacho Doritos. They may find some amazing deals on General Mills cereals or frozen pizzas or canned kidney beans. Then they’ll pack their bags of goodies into the car and head over to DQ, where they’ll treat themselves to the five dollar lunch deal, complete with mini-sundae.

They have their Saturday rituals. I have mine, too. While they’re gone, I’m cleaning.

**************

I have already walked the dog, who, sighing, sinks into the couch, rests her chin on the overstuffed arm, and falls immediately into a deep, elderly sleep. I throw open the coat closet where I keep my cleaning arsenal. I pull down the Swiffer duster and go to my rag bag to find a couple of soft, worn, white socks. (One Saturday, I reached for the duster refills only to find the box was empty. I said to myself,–I really did,–“Well. I’m not going to be able to dustmop until I get some refills!”

An immediate cacophony raged in my head, the derisive roaring of generations of stern Scottish housekeepers howling at the thought that I needed to buy duster refills in order to clean.

Above the howling, I swear I heard my mother’s dismayed, determined voice saying, “Oh, just put a sock on it!”

Sure enough, soft old socks, secured on the flexible stem with a rubber band, work just fine for dusting ceiling corners, light fixtures, the curved wooden rims of mirror frames, the iron fretwork on headboards, and the always dusty ledges of window sashes.)

I learned that Saturdays were for cleaning from my mother. By the end of the busy week, our house felt heavy and and dusty and lived in, and we would wrestle the proper tools from the broom closet–a dust mop with a fluffy head of brightly colored yarns, the old damp mop loaded by folding clean soft rags into neat rectangles and feeding them into its pinching, clamping jaws. The canister vacuum was heavy and irascible; it had to be wooed and fidgeted out of the closet, and its long hose was always curling up on itself, reluctant to cooperate. We used clean cloths to dust the furniture, and we did not use polish, Pledge being a hoax perpetrated on slapdash housewives with money to burn.

I did not like to clean, and my mother, a perfectionist at times, often found my help more trouble than it was worth. She doggedly kept at it, trying to train a reluctant daughter who would much rather curl up with a book and escape to a different world than embrace the romance of a freshly mopped floor. But sometimes, in frustration, she would snatch the mop or the dust rag or the vacuum hose away.

“I can’t stand to watch you,” she’d say. “Let me just do it.”

I would slink off to find my book and a quiet corner.

But she, even when feeling her lug-headed daughter was just not getting it, sowed the cleaning seeds deep. I feel that same household heaviness on a Saturday in 2017 that we felt in 1965. My arsenal of cleaning weapons may be modernized, but it, too, is much the same.

I learned the ritual of cleaning from my mother; but I did not absorb so much the best ways to go about creating a  clean house. My first apartments were grand examples of cluttered mess.  I learned efficient technique when, shortly after moving to central Ohio, I cast about for work. A mistaken phone call came when I was getting very frustrated–a wrong number from a cleaning company tracking down an applicant. Well, hey, I said, I’d be interested, and they said, Sure. Come on down.

They cleaned banks, this service. At the training, in the huge main downtown office, they unveiled the tools of the trade, and taught their philosophy of cleaning. Make your tools work for you, they said. And clean from the top down. Vacuum first, then dust.

I was assigned two small branch offices to clean; I worked with a trainer for a week or two, and then I was on my own, terrified that I’d forget the security code or take so long in locking up that the police would arrive and haul me away for questioning. But the work itself became a patterned dance–arranging all the tools, dusting from the ceilings down to counter height, scouring the bathrooms with antiseptic cleaners, waltzing the mop backwards across the scuffed tiled floors until the shine returned, sashaying myself backwards out the restroom door. Then I’d vacuum; I quickly learned where the most convenient plugs were, the locations that would give me maximum play of the cord. I’d dust the counter-tops with a citrus-y polish, pack up the cloths for the person who whisked them away for cleaning, dump the vacuum, bag up the trash. I would do one final circuit, making sure I hadn’t missed spots or left a bottle of cleaner sitting on a countertop, and satisfied, I’d grab my purse and coat, frantically pound in the security code, and rush outside while the door snapped firmly shut.

It was hard work, but satisfying–and it was kind of fun to be locked inside the bank all by myself after hours. To go from workday clutter to shining surfaces in a two hour sweep made me smile.  Before too long, I got a teaching job and said goodbye to the cleaning company, but I’d learned a thing or two about efficiency that I applied at home.

**********

So, on this Saturday morning, armed with the socked-up duster, I start upstairs, at the top, smoothing away dust strands stuck in high corners, sweeping over the tops of picture frames, scooting dust from the blades of ceiling fans.  I scrub the bathrooms and dump towels and washcloths and rugs down the laundry chute. I sweep, and then, just like the old days, I do a little dance with the damp mop on the tiled floors, backing myself out into the carpeted hallway.

I vacuum the carpets, but today, I do not move the beds or chairs or vacuum the mattresses. Today we have an adventure planned for the afternoon–a lazy meander down a road we haven’t traveled yet, one that winds south down along the river–and I want the house done before we take off.  So, I vacuum the obvious surfaces, and use the duster to tease out the under-furze, sucking it up with my Hoover. Next week, I’ll make up for the laxness, for doing what my mother would call a ‘once-over-lightly’ kind of job.  “We’ll just give it a lick and a promise,” she’d sometimes say.

My younger self thoroughly enjoyed a lick and a promise days.

****************

No, I have not always been a dedicated cleaner. In fact, although I always liked a shining house, was comforted by uncluttered, gleaming surfaces, I struggled to reconcile that with a fledgling understanding of feminism. In college and just after, I felt guilty for tackling the cleaning and the laundry–Why is this MY job? I’d demand angrily,–and sometimes I would grab my book and defiantly sit reading, actively ignoring, or trying to ignore, the mess and the clutter.

But the truth was an awful, messy house gave me awful, messy thoughts. Aged twenty-four or so, an avid reader of Cosmopolitan magazine (the day the new edition hit the supermarket shelves was always a treasure day for me), I came across an article by a young woman executive in New York City who lived in a messy apartment. She wrote how defiantly she did NOT clean up–she was a liberated woman, after all,–and how disgusted a date was at her messy digs. And suddenly, she said, she saw her quarters though his eyes, and it became not an issue of gender equality, but a symbol of lack of pride and terribly poor organizational skills.

She did not date the disapproving man again–a little too stuffy, she wrote,–but she changed the way she looked at her living space. She became, she said, house proud. She made her apartment a place she was glad to come home to. She cleaned and polished and decorated, not to impress another, but to be good to, and caring of, herself.

Funny how an article in a frothy magazine could re-adjust my thinking. House proud, I pondered, and I began to clean to please myself and not to conform to anyone else’s standard. And later, when Mark and I got married, the division of labor fell into an easy, pleasant rhythm. I liked to cook, and he was happy to do dishes. He took over the laundry; I vacuumed and mopped; we changed the beds together.

On Saturdays, although he was always willing to pitch in if needed, he did guy-things, sometimes with one of the boys, sometimes solo. He handled the car maintenance, hung pictures, did yard work, took the recycling to the bins. He cleaned and organized his tools. I cleaned the house.

The division of labor seemed pretty fair and even.

***************

Today,  I work my way downstairs. I straighten and tidy; I vacuum, and the sighing dog runs away to another room.  I run a soft rag over the dusty surfaces of end tables.  I empty the vacuum’s packed dust-catcher. I replace the towels in the half bath and the dishcloths in the kitchen.

The house is cleaned,–licked and promised,–and the boyos pull into the drive,  go-cups in hand, plastic shopping bags looped over their wrists, kicking the empty plastic recycling bins ahead of them. They have Saturday morning adventures to share.

I mix up tuna salad, make myself a sandwich, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and then we are pulling the door shut behind us, and heading off to explore the backroads on a sunny February Saturday. The adventure is undergirded by the knowledge that we will come home to an uncluttered, organized house, with clear surfaces on which to set any exploration swag we gather,–a lightened, brightened space where we can kick back and relax, dissecting the week.

*******************

“How we change,” I remember my father remarking, stopping in to see me shortly after Mark and I got married. He was remembering, I am sure, my messy bedroom, the chaos that was my first apartment in college. Now, the house was pleasantly clean, the cookie jar was full; we put on a pot of coffee and sat down for a visit at an uncluttered table, in some uncluttered time.  I was proud that he’d dropped in to find me organized, proud that I had mastered the art of caring, for my family, yes, but also for myself.

It’s funny. As a child, I needed to know that someone had it all under control–the house would be clean, there would be socks in the drawer. The cookie jar would magically refill. I needed that, but I needed, too, the teachers who dragged me out of my dependency on someone other, who nudged me into places where I knew I’d have my own landscapes under control. I needed to reach that place where I knew, having given my household terrain a lick and a promise, the promise would, eventually but certainly, be kept.