“One of the greatest gifts my Mother gave me was that she was a terrible housekeeper. She wasn’t terrible at everything, she was just terrible at keeping the house clean, which she firmly believed she should to be able to do.
She was a published poet, a great writer of short stories, a painter, a talented breaker and trainer of horses, a knowledgeable collector of antiques, a seeker into the psychic and the mysteries of the world, a good mother, a true, loyal and devoted friend, incurably curious, an authority on American Indian folklore, an intuitive searcher for precious rocks, fossils and old gems, a defender of everyone’s civil rights, and most of all a fascinating and extra-ordinary woman, but she couldn’t keep the kitchen floor clean.
I was not at all damaged by the state of our house. I was saddened that she sometime negatively judged who she was.”
Anne Wilson Shaeff.
My Mum was, and still is an unobtrusive housekeeper. That is to say that she was never one of those women who talked about housekeeping, she didn’t judge other women upon how often they were on their knees scrubbing their skirting boards, and I cannot, ever really remember her in a frenzy of housework. And yet the house is always immaculate because she is presumably the elegant swan of all things domestic, floating about on a calm lake, feet polishing past themselves under the surface.
What mattered to her was wrapping us up in warm jarmies when we got home from school and having a plate of crumpets in front of the 1970’s three bar electric fire. A neatly ironed school uniform was important but making a creative mess was absolutely permitted. Our house was a home not a museum and that is what I takeaway from her example: not an overwhelming urge to run a white gloved finger over the mantelpiece but that a sense of home as a backdrop for our lives is what matters. That a house that provides a springboard for personal achievement is the ultimate goal.
But I know that every home, every housekeeper differs. When Kath’s Mum is due to visit, Kath goes into housekeeping overdrive, not because her lovely Mum is a domestic ogress but because Kath (who is I think, the bestest housekeeper I know) respects the fact that her Mum sets great store by the standards she has always maintained in her own home. Standards that are I suppose instilled in Kath herself to the degree that she is occasionally to be found cleaning the bathroom floor at eleven thirty on a Saturday night…
And then there are the Mum’s who go to far. Those whose lives, and worse than that, whose children’s lives are dictated by the degree to which their lives depend on having lickable kitchen surfaces. Those who apply anti-bacterial ungents to every surface and forget to play with their kids. Those who insist on no more than one toy at a time littering the floor and stifle every last ounce of creativity in the constant quest for interior perfection.
And at the other end of the scale, there are those like me, who occasionally find themselves so consumed with life and the business of creating a life for her child, that said kid occasionally finds himself trooping into nursery in odd socks, safe in the knowledge that yes Mummy is a bit bonkers and couldn’t find matching ones, but odd socks make for a rather delicious sense of confident eccentricity and it is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs and if by some chance, it isn’t, he can always blame his Nana for not instilling into his Mother why socks matter more more than books, or joy, or hanging upside down from the climbing frame so every disapproving Mummy in the park can see the scandalous socks in question…
Because plainly it is my Mum’s fault and I love her for it. On the one hand she probably despairs of my lackadaisical attitude to running a home (I am a kind of slightly grubby swan, floating without moving a muscle) and on the other she must be so proud of managing to bring up, not one but two incredibly independent, ambitious women. Women dedicated to their respective little boys, and above all else grown up little girls with a sense that beyond the homes we have created ourselves there exists a place where it would be more than ok to kick off our shoes, curl up in a ball and drink tea and Marie biscuits forever more.
No matter that we are the all grown up housekeepers now who didn’t even know jobs like cleaning the drains existed (Our mum was busy inspiring us to start a business and forgot to show us why these things were important). No matter that we only ever remember her peeling potatoes and baking a chocolate chip sponge (that still makes my mouth water) and never really churning up a three course lunch or maintaining one of those excessively stocked chest freezers resplendent with half a cow and the brains of a sheep. No matter because our house was a place where we learned to be who we are. Because we understand how our Mothers attitude to housekeeping, or perhaps more pertinently, to a sense of home, shapes the woman we become. The Mothers we are destined to be ourselves.
Tell me now, how did your Mum shape your role as a housekeeper?