Family Magician

The chores associated with the title, “Domestic Goddess”, have come to me with much difficulty. I understand, in theory, the benefits of a consistently clean house. It is much nicer to curl up into a straightened bed at the end of the night. The kitchen floor is quite pretty when its’ had its’ daily sweep. Heaven knows, that once the living room is cleared of toys it becomes a place I actually want to be. I know that dusting, wiping, scrubbing and picking up, are all necessary for our little house to function better as a home. I guess it just never occurred to me that I would be the one doing all the dusting, wiping, scrubbing, the oh-my-word-is-that-messy-again cleaning. The comprehension of this fact was swift and harsh, a guillotine of gender role realizations. (Side note: Riley is a huge help and to date has done more laundry than I have. Full disclosure requires me to state that I am actually forbidden from doing laundry as I tend to ruin 1 out of every 8 loads.)

I stopped working in August and it was then that I began to try to define my role as a stay at home mother. I decided part of my work at home would be a house nicely ordered and scrubbed. A place ready for good times and dinner by the time our lovely Riley returned home. It seems to me that cleaning the house, making the bed, mopping that @#$% white tile floor AGAIN, is all service. Service for my husband who works so hard for us all day. Service for my daughter as she plays in a clean room and learns by example. Maybe even service for God, as I emulate him in the organization of matter and express gratitude through care of my earthly surroundings. I believe this is true. As a woman I am uniquely made for service; I was happy to find another opportunity for it in the home. My first week home from work was chock-a-block full of good intentions and high thoughts.

And then.

And then it hit me.

It is not merely that I do not care for housekeeping. I actually have no idea how to go about doing it. Dusting for example…apparently, and I only know this by looking at my windowsills, it has to be done more than once a month. It is not enough to clean just kitchen countertops as the cabinets insist on getting dirty, too. I was reading a blog on housekeeping a few months ago that instructed me to alternate cleaning baseboards and ceiling fans. There are people out there cleaning their baseboards?

The enormity of my ignorance was all consuming.

On top of it all, my ineffective housecleaning seemed to take all day. I am not talking about that common mom complaint, “I had the house cleaned by 10 am and the kids had it torn apart by 10:30am.” No, there was never a point when I could say the whole house had been cleaned. Rather it would go something like, “I had my bed made by 10am and was thinking about tackling the kitchen by 3pm.” I was actually cleaning the house all day. This was both embarrassing and discouraging.

This morning, I came across a short story published in the 1940’s by Shirley Jackson called, “Family Magician”. In it, Dad has died and Mom is left with two children, Dottie and Jerry. Their circumstances are strained and the atmosphere in the home feels the same. One afternoon a woman named Mallie, a la Mary Poppins, drops into their kitchen and informs the family that she will be taking care of them for a while. And take care she does. She serves each member of the family, creating a home out of good dinners and good conversation. She seems to sparkle and, although the children never gather any proof, they just know she is magic. Beds are made before she has even gone into the room, enough cookies and lemonade wait on the table for a baseball team she didn’t know was coming over, “it seemed as though she could straighten a room just by standing in the doorway and looking around hard.” She is, in a very real sense, the nurturing presence I would like to be.

One day Dottie, the teenage daughter, says,

“I wish you’d teach me some of that magic, Mallie.”

Mallie was making a salad but she looked at Dottie and said, “What do you need magic for, Missy? You’re doing alright without any.”

“YOU know,” Dottie said. She sat down and Mallie just went on making the salad…, “Look at all you can do – making dresses and doing housework without lifting a finger, and all that.”

“I only do work fast so’s I’ll have more time to do other things, “ Mallie said… “I’m real busy and busy people don’t have time to for everything they want to do. So I make time.”

“That’s it,” Dottie said. “I’m real busy, too. I want to learn some magic.”

Mallie laughed. “Tell you what I’ll do, honey. I’ll teach you how to make a pie. That’s all the magic you’ll ever need.”

And golly if she didn’t teach Dottie right then and there how to make a pie; just pushed the salad off to one side and went to work…It was a pretty good pie too – apple…And after that Mallie taught Dottie a lot of other things – and she told Dottie over and over again, “that’s all the magic you’ll ever need.”

I read those few lines and the silliness of my situation came to me quick and bright, a shooting star of gender role realizations. The scrubbing, the picking up, the oh-my-word-what-is-that-in-the-kitchen sink cleaning, is not an end in itself. It is simply the preparation for all the goodness my day can contain. It is the broccoli you have to eat before your parents will let you have ice cream. Is this really SO bad? The broccoli is good for you and GUESS WHAT? It is followed by a big bowl of ice cream! I love Mallie. The beds in her house are made, the floors are clean, dinner is in the oven and because of that, she has the TIME to sit down with Dottie and teach her how to make a pie. Can you imagine having the time to make a pie JUST BECAUSE you wanted to? I can’t clean a room by just, “standing in the doorway and looking around hard.” I know, because I have tried. I can, however, understand that I am cleaning with a purpose. I will work fast so that I can provide my daughter (and myself) with days full of adventure, learning and joy. I will better understand the priorities of my life. Some days the house won’t get clean. I will know it is okay to push the salad aside, so that Margaret and I can bake a pie.

I think that’s all the magic I’ll ever need.