[I wrote this in 2002 as part of a low-residency writing course at Southern Vermont College]
Suzy Homemaker I will never be. I hate to cook. I put off grocery shopping until the cupboards contain only a can of mandarin oranges and a jar of Spanish olives. Why clean the house when I can burn incense and make it smell nice? If a room gets dirty, I avoid it. When it gets real bad, we go on vacation. The only thing I don’t mind is doing laundry. Piling the folded clothes on top of the dining room table provides a convenient excuse for eating out. As fate would have it though, we have out of town visitors nearly every other weekend, prompting frenzied housecleaning, grocery shopping and meal preparation.
My brother, his wife and two-year-old twins (Jake and Dina) visited last weekend. My husband and I had just returned from a trip three days before their visit. I was hard-pressed to pull off the scam I call “housework,” having only enough time to wash the sheets in the guestrooms and make the beds. Dina was quick to point out every dead fly hanging in the cobwebs of our old Vermont farmhouse – standing frozen, with her quivering finger extended, yelling “Bee! Bee! Mommy, Bee!” I was still making the beds when my brother, Tom, was getting Jake in his pajamas. I told him it would be easier for me to make the bed if he got off of it. He chuckled lamely and stood Jake on the floor. At which point, Jake proceeded to crawl under a piece of furniture and emerge with a thick, downy coat of dust-bunnies. I explained apologetically that I had been unable to vacuum under there. As if I had vacuumed every other place in the house!
My brother had the bright idea to invite nineteen other people to our pastoral home – including the wives, girlfriends and children of his friends. They stayed at a nearby motel, but spent the better part of their days hanging out in our yard and taking little jaunts on their four-wheelers. One of the wives, a woman I had never met before, came in the house to use the bathroom. She was a well-groomed, attractive woman with two young girls. One of those stay-at-home moms who wears her domesticity as a badge of honor. As she entered the house, she exclaimed, “Your wood floors are so beautiful! How do you keep them so clean?”
“Dim lights,” I responded, dryly.
“Yeah, it’s an illusion. Kind of like when your bra is a cup-size too small, making you look like you have four breasts instead of two.”
She feigned laughter and shifted uncomfortably.
I continued, “And I don’t let people take off their shoes.”
She echoed me again, her smile weakening, “You don’t let people take off their shoes? How does that keep your floors clean?”
“It doesn’t. It just prevents people from noticing how dirty they really are.”
She used the bathroom quickly and took her two girls back outside.
Later that evening we had a quiet meal at home. My brother’s friends had dispersed and were eating at various local restaurants. I had prepared a relatively successful meal of lasagna, salad and bread. The twins enjoyed it and my three young boys ate it without complaint. I was beginning to relax and feel that the meal had gone off without a hitch. As we were clearing the dishes from the table, my sister-in-law, Dawn, started inspecting my placemats.
“These are so pretty, Kara. Where did you get them?”
“The Hillside House, right down the road,” I replied, trying to sound casual. Dawn lifted the placemat and I prayed that she wouldn’t turn it over. In my haste to get the house ready, I didn’t have time to wash the placemats. I simply turned them over – clean side up, dirty side down – and went on to more important things. She flipped it over, exposing my domestic trickery and witnessed the weeks of caked-on food particles and stains on the underside of my pretty placemats.
When my husband and I were first married, my in-laws bought me an apron for Christmas. It was nice, as aprons go – denim with “Vermont” written on the front. Certainly not frilly, but not Neil Diamond’s idea of “forever in blue jeans” either. No matter what – it was still an apron. I hung it on a hook in the kitchen and thought that maybe someday I would wear it doing arts and crafts with the kids. That day never came. But years later, getting caught up in the festivities of preparing a Thanksgiving meal, I decided to throw it on for fun. After tying the straps behind my neck and around my waist I was overcome with an uncontrollable desire to skip. I hadn’t felt like skipping since I was a young girl. I wondered if this was where the expression “Galloping Gourmet” came from. I felt the epitome of a “Happy Housewife” and began skipping from the kitchen to the pantry and around the dining room singing songs and preparing my meal. The look on my oldest son’s face as he walked in the house was enough to shock me back into sobriety. I was more frightened than he and quickly removed the apron (pronounced Ape – Run!!) and put it in the goodwill box.
Much of my Thanksgiving meal was underway, when I started preparing my apple and pumpkin pies. Since I can’t cook well, I cook in abundance and had decided to make four pies to feed four adults and three children. I took my ready-made crusts out of the freezer. My apple pie recipe is partially prepared in the microwave, so I couldn’t use the tin pans that the crusts came in. I could only find one of my glass pie plates, until I remembered that I had used the other under a houseplant on the deck during the summer. The houseplant came inside in September, but the pie plate was collecting dirt, debris and dead bugs for another two months. I shook out the dead flies and ladybugs, brought it in and scrubbed the mud, pollen and bird crap from the surface. Holding it up to the window, I admired its gleaming surface and finished making my pies.
The pies were a hit. When my mother-in-law asked if I had made the crusts from scratch, I was indignant when I replied, “I don’t have time to do that.” I couldn’t tell her that it took me 45 minutes to find the pie plate, scrape off the bird dung and dead bugs and wash it to its present state. Nor could I confess that my domestic skills were equivalent to Archie Bunker’s. I still wanted her to like me.
My mother was visiting several months later (okay, maybe it was a couple years later), when I was baking some chicken for dinner. There was an unusual amount of smoke coming out of the oven. When I checked to make sure that my dinner wasn’t burning, I could see a small object on the oven floor – black and burnt to a crisp. Afraid that it was a small rodent and not wanting to prepare a substitute meal, I ignored it and instructed my husband to do the same. The chicken was in a covered dish, so I was confident it couldn’t be contaminated. Whatever was smoking on the bottom of my oven could wait until we could deal with it more discreetly.
After dinner, my husband called me into the pantry to tell me he had disposed of the crispy critter from the oven.
“Do you know what it was?” asked my husband.
“No. I don’t think I want to know.”
“It was a bird,” he said.
After watching the incredulous look on my face, he said, “I’m just kidding. It looked like a piece of pie crust.”
That Christmas my mother bought me a subscription to Bon Appetit. The gift card announcing my subscription caused me to burst out laughing. The kids asked me what was so funny. When I explained that their grandma had bought me a gourmet cooking magazine, all three boys doubled over in hysterical laughing fits. Okay, it wasn’t that funny!! But then I realized that perhaps it was not a joke at all. And then I didn’t know how to handle it.
I sent my mother an email, “Hi Mom. I received my first issue of Bon Appetit today. If it’s a joke, it’s very funny. If it’s not, thank you very much.” She wrote back, saying it was not a joke. She thought I’d enjoy it because it had some really nice recipes. It was the first time I really started to worry about my mother’s mental state.
I thought about my Bon Appetit subscription as I was making Jell-O one night. Feeling especially adventurous, I decided to put some canned fruit in it. Those mandarin oranges had been in my cupboards for years. I had to let the jello set for a certain amount of time before adding the fruit – but my husband had rented a movie and wanted me to watch it with him. The movie was over by the time I got back to my Jell-O. It had set too long. So, there I stood, at 11:00 on a Sunday night, forcing pieces of canned fruit into my special Jell-O treat. I wondered if Bon Appetit had any helpful hints for this dilemma and laughed again at the thought that my mother had bought this for me.
I suppose I might enjoy cooking if I had a more receptive audience. I married and gave birth to a family of fussy eaters. After slaving over the stove, setting a beautiful table on my pretty placemats, I announce, “dinner’s ready” only to hear,
“What’s that stuff?!”
“Why does that smell so funny?”
“Are those onions in there?”
“What are those green flecks?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Do we have to eat THAT?”
Sometimes I want to cry. Rationally, I know I shouldn’t take it personally. Canned Vienna sausages are my husband’s idea of a delicacy. The boys get excited over breakfast cereal that looks like rabbit poop. There’s even a rabbit on the package. When milk is poured over the little droppings, it turns to chocolate milk. How can I possibly compete with that?
I’ve tried to quit. I’ve tried to get fired. I find reasons to stay late at my office. I’ve even signed up for college classes to avoid more mealtimes. But invariably, I walk through the door greeted by a trio of angelic faces and a chorus of “what’s for dinner, mommy?” I look at my sweet children and my devoted husband and say, “Let’s go out for dinner,” and everyone jumps for joy.