Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘women’s work’

498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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298. On TP Rolls and Responsibility

In 1970s, 1980s, history, Media, Nature, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on February 1, 2015 at 1:05 pm

(from misadventuresinnyc.com)

(from misadventuresinnyc.com)

For a few short months in the summer of 1980, in-between moves, I rented a room in a group house in Fields Corner, Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston. I didn’t know my housemates very well, though some of them were closer friends than others. At that time Dorchester was very segregated, and Fields Corner seemed to be one of the few sections that was racially mixed. Going a few blocks in one direction it became all-Irish, in another, all-Black. (In fact, even now, 35 years later, while the Greater Boston area is more racially diverse, it’s at least as racially segregated, if not more.) In any case, at that time Dorchester wasn’t a very comfortable place to live, and neither was the house where I was living. I remember very little about that household, except for the antique toaster that I lost there and the empty toilet paper rolls.

I’m fully aware that toilet paper isn’t generally considered a topic of polite conversation, so I won’t dwell on it here, even though I think that its modern advent is sociologically fascinating, ecologically wasteful, and even barbaric, at least from the point of view of many people around the world who prefer to use water. But back to that summer, in which I was leading a rather alienated existence; the toilet-paper roll issue became emblematic of that alienation.

There was little cooperation or community spirit in the household. There wasn’t even a cleaning rota as there often is in group houses, where people take it in turn to clean the common areas such as the kitchens, bathrooms, and toilets. I must take as much responsibility for that lack of community as everyone else, for I don’t remember ever lifting a finger to do anything that extended beyond my own personal needs. It was quite early on when I noticed that nobody was disposing of the empty toilet paper rolls; they were simply left lying on the floor. As each week gave way to the next, I noticed, with what now seems to me to be an alarming detachment, that the number of cardboard tubes strewn about on the floor was increasing, but still no one, including me, disposed of them, even by depositing them in a waste-paper basket. Come to think of it, I don’t know if there was a waste-paper basket in the bathroom. And to be honest, I have no recollection of either buying toilet paper for the house or contributing to the cost of it.

Week after week, as the empty tubes continued to proliferate, I continued to curl my lip at them as typical of that household. There was no awareness on my part that this state of affairs had anything to do with me. I never brought up the subject to any of my housemates, and left at the end of the summer without looking back. But ever since, especially once we moved from group living to a nuclear-family setting (another subject for another day), it fell to me to replace the empty rolls, and that memory of mounting piles of cardboard tubes has been a source of wonder to me, representing a low point of communal responsibility.

(from priceonomics.com, The true story of the crying Indian)

(from priceonomics.com, The true story of the crying Indian)

I have never been a great believer in the Reagan-era doctrine of individual responsibility. By shifting the responsibility for the ills of society onto the individual, a corporate-controlled government can abdicate social responsibility and do away with government regulation. A case in point is the 1970s campaign against littering. While the environmental movement was trying to call corporate polluters to account for poisoning the air and water, the Reagan administration cleverly shifted the focus to the individual with the Keep America Beautiful Campaign (started by American businesses), as if the solution to environmental pollution consisted in everyone picking up after themselves. The now-famous crying Indian commercial exemplified this approach, with its slogan: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” This was brought home to me powerfully by Heather Rogers and her documentary and book of the same name, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, in which “the focus on litter, and indeed construction of the modern concept of litter, is seen as an attempt to divert responsibility from industries that rely on disposable products to the consumer that improperly disposes of them” (Hyde, qtd. in Conrad).

But back to the toilet paper rolls and my own role, or lack thereof, in dealing with them. Ironically, we were all anti-nuclear activists, committed to fighting irresponsible corporate polluters and to living low on the food chain ourselves. Yet we were unable or unwilling, it seemed, to take responsibility for even the smallest communal tasks that could have made our living environment more homelike. Perhaps we thought we were too busy saving the planet to pay attention to creating a house beautiful. More likely, we didn’t think about it at all. After all, we were in our twenties, and it was to be a few years yet before we started setting up homes fit to raise children in. Still, it’s astonishing to me now that while I took note of the TP-roll phenomenon, I utterly failed to connect it to myself.

Or perhaps I did, and consciously chose not to act. After all, it is generally assumed that such maintenance tasks, endlessly repeated jobs that keep the family running, are women’s work. No one in a typical nuclear family will notice that the toilet paper roll needs changing regularly, because the woman of the household—or the servant, in wealthy households—will quietly take care of it. It’s quite likely that, watching those rolls piling up, the twenty-something me thought to herself, “I’m damned if I’m the one who is going to take care of that.” Quite right, too, as a starting point. But did I take the next step and raise the subject to the group when we were all making our separate breakfasts together in the kitchen? No, I didn’t. Still more damning, I haven’t raised it at any time since. After we moved to a nuclear-family setting, nearly twenty-five years ago now, I was consistently the one to replace the toilet paper rolls, and never once made an issue of it. Neither did I resent it; at least, not very much. I wonder why, and why not? Perhaps it was just my perception that I was the only one changing the roll, while other members of the family were changing it just as often. Here too, I didn’t take the trouble to contribute to a sense of community in the household by talking about it or making it a consciously shared responsibility. And although it seems like a petty issue, it is emblematic of a larger problem, in individual homes and in society at large. I do believe in taking personal responsibility, but personal responsibility to build community in order to make both personal and social change.

Dear friends of mine are living and working in Dorchester now, contributing by their personal example and community involvement to a racially integrated, collectively controlled neighborhood. Whether they change the toilet-paper rolls in their own homes I don’t know and don’t much care, but I realize now that, in the words of Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, everything counts.

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171. Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron

In Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on January 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of the linen-o

Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.
Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron (English folk song)

kitchen windowsill

kitchen windowsill

Doris Lessing once wrote that although many of our lives have changed out of all recognition, women still respond emotionally to the way things used to be. For me, that translates into deriving great pleasure from tasks that I hardly have time for anymore, time-honored (and alas, time-consuming) household rituals like washing (drying, ironing, and folding) clothes by hand; tasks that, however tedious, my mother carried out with a spring in her step and a song on her lips.

There is something deeply satisfying about hanging out the wash on a warm, breezy summer’s day with a basket of clothes pegs on my arm, then bringing it back in from the line fresh and sweet-smelling; scrubbing down the worn wooden window sill in the kitchen and filling my favorite posy vase with a small bunch of flowers from the farm; later in the summer, setting out a row of half-green tomatoes to ripen on that same windowsill; lighting a stick of Nag Champa incense and carrying it from room to room to infuse each one with its purifying essence.

When I have the rare luxury of a leisurely day to prepare a multi-course meal from scratch, cooking brings me this kind of pleasure, as I slip my dear friend Marianne’s jainkyrshah, the traditional cotton-check Khasi apron (its Khasi name literally meaning “cloth to cover-and-protect”) over my head and plunge into the work with a will. I love paying close attention to the timing of all the dishes, grating and grinding the fresh spices, running out to the kitchen garden to pick sprigs of mint or thyme, throwing a fresh tablecloth over the dining table, and setting out the dishes, remembering when and where I came by each one.

Khasi cook wearing jainkyrshah (tattoos-tattoo-tatto.blogspot.com)

Khasi cook wearing jainkyrshah (tattoos-tattoo-tatto.blogspot.com)

Even chores without a shred of romance to them can give pleasure in this way. When Nikhil was a baby I was determined to use cloth diapers, despite the near-universal use of disposables at that time and the total absence of a diaper service anywhere near us in Winchendon. I managed to pull together a supply of fresh cotton ones for everyday use and my Auntie Bette sent me a pack of thick towelling English nappies that I used at night. I enjoyed changing time: folding and pinning the diaper (without pricking the baby) was a daily challenge, a three-dimensional, interactive origami. And somehow, the knowledge that cloth diapers were the healthiest for the baby and that I was carrying on a traditional practice in the face of a prevailing one that was time-saving but horribly wasteful, gave me a sense of pride and continuity, linking me to generations of women around the world.

Ironing is one of those time-consuming tasks that can be redeemed by recalling its role in generations of women’s lives. I have an ancient  ironing board that folds down out of a narrow cupboard built into the wall. Andrew found it in Brookline years ago, outside an old Victorian house that was being gutted and remodeled, and brought it home for me. In the United States ironing seems to have gone almost completely by the board, but in England it still seems to be alive and well even among the younger generation, if the Facebook pages of my cousin Sue’s daughters are anything to go by. I can’t swear that anyone actually enjoys the process of ironing itself, but I rather like the idea of it, and can attest to the satisfaction of getting it over and done with. I must confess that I am always extremely grateful, on my visits to India, to be able to send my saris out to be ironed.

khadi saris drying on the back veranda in Ratnagiri

khadi saris drying on the back veranda in Ratnagiri

When I have a few days off, especially when a teaching year has drawn to a close, there is nothing I want to do more than to turn to my long-neglected house and give it a thorough spring-cleaning: to put away those dark, heavy winter work clothes and bring out my summer cottons; retire the storm windows and slide the summer screens into place; fetch the fans down from the attic and wash their blades; spread fresh-cut tansy plants in the kitchen window-wells to ward off ants; and dig down to the very bottom of the old cane laundry basket to retrieve and reclaim that pile of delicate items that I haven’t had time to wash by hand.

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