Our Intergenerational Stories
Each woman has her own legacy of housekeeping and lost hopes. My grandmother Charlotte was a trick horseback rider who could stand up in the saddle and balance on one foot while riding at full gallop. She married at age 20, had five children, and rebelled against all things domestic. On every major holiday, with the extra cooking and the guests, she threatened to run off and join the circus. Over time, Charlotte shifted the tasks of housekeeping and childrearing to her eldest daughter. My mother left home at age 16, and vowed that she would never pass this thankless drudgery on to me.
When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s, my chores were minimal—making the bed, hanging up my clothes, some light tidying up. My mother gave me the one thing she had always longed for—creative solitude. With plenty of time to draw and practice the piano, I came to view the home as a kind of makeshift atelier—a place for music, art, and storytelling. It didn’t matter that dust bunnies nested underneath the sofa, laundry sat sulking in the corner of the bathroom, and socks skittered across my bedroom floor like tumbleweeds. There was something far more important than cleaning, and that was tending the creative spirit of the home.
I didn’t learn to clean until I was in my twenties, living in Manhattan and working at Life magazine. On the nights we put an issue to bed, I’d arrive home at 2 AM, too wound up to sleep. Not knowing what to do with all that energy, I began to wash the kitchen floor. Then I dusted, organized the closets, folded my sweaters and t-shirts, and rearranged my drawers. I found this late-night cleaning meditative and profoundly satisfying—it was a way to calm down and listen to the breathing of the house.
Many single women come to homemaking this way—as a kind of happy accident. The key to our domestic idyll is that we have no one else to pick up after and there’s no need to do the laundry or serve the meals on time.
Rediscovering the Eros of the Home
Today housekeeping is a lost art—we no longer teach cooking, sewing, or home repair in our public schools. Instead we rely on digital helpers. Alexa activates the Roomba, orders the paper towels from Amazon, and resets the dishwasher, while Americans, now recognized as the world’s worst homemakers, depend on “life hacks” to make a bed or clean a shower stall.
Yet there are signs the pendulum is swinging back. Witness the slow food movement, our new interest in planting edible gardens, and in repairing and recycling things. As we become more technologically oriented, we are instinctively reaching for the things that balance us and ground us in the senses—and foster a deeper feeling for the home.
During the pandemic, many of us believed that if we faithfully kept the house, the house would keep us as well. We began to clean and organize, recalling the daily rituals performed by our mothers and grandmothers, and harkened back to an era when the words earth, hearth, and heart were one.
This is more than mere nostalgia. The act of home-making has a lot to do with intimacy and relationship. Each one of us longs for the home-cooked meal, the tidy office, the fresh sheets, the welcoming living room with books and magazines stacked neatly on the coffee table. House-holding is about more than picking up. It is about creating sanctuary, making each room a sanctuary—-a place of ease and comfort.
Some of us are even starting to talk about the eros of a home. My friend Barb approaches it with abandon, with music blaring, and in a bra and shorts. “It’s a sexy kind of sweaty,” she says, “Like the scene in the film, Working Girl, where Melanie Griffiths vacuums Harrison’s Ford’s apartment topless.” Then there’s Robert Sheckley’s story, “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?” where a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman demonstrates a model that pleasures the housewife as it strokes the carpet.
When technology combines our household and our personal appliances, we may be sluts and hussies after all.