Christmas Day is over with its particular 2020 weirdness and there were many opportunities to overdo it. I make no apologies for decorating our home. The men in my house silently appreciate my efforts or that’s what I tell myself. Actually I put up a tree and scatter around reminders of Christmases past because I like them. I turn on the outside lights and the tree lights every night and early in the morning because I’m the first one up. Everything stays up until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night, Three Kings Day, or whatever you want to call it. I have fond memories of this day. When I was a young child, living in Spain in an apartment with people from Spain, the US and other countries I celebrated throughout the month of December.
On December 6th, I put the wooden shoes, given to me by a Dutch neighbor, outside our door and lo and behold, they were filled with candy and small toys the next morning. St. Nicholas Day started the festivities. On Christmas Eve, our family opened presents, whether we were in the US or not. I think this was a tradition from my mother’s family, and I think it’s German in origin. I’m not sure how it was explained that we received our presents early, but I’m sure it was and it seemed perfectly normal to us. Maybe it was a time management issue for Santa. Oddly stockings didn’t appear until Christmas morning. Maybe Santa doubled back.
In Spain, December 25th was primarily a religious holiday and presents weren’t exchanged until Three Kings Day. I remember a parade where the kings marched through town. They were huge and glittering with jewels. I think there must have been a papier-mâché structure placed on the shoulders of the kings which created their tall and imposing presence. Since we were in Spain, we celebrated also.
You can see how Christmas has never held the charm and power of my early memories. On some level, I don’t expect too much of Christmas, which gave me an advantage this year.
Even so, I made way too many cookies, subconsciously expecting friends to drop by and family to sit down to a big dinner followed by a platter of the best cookies.
It’s probably why I bought a prime rib for three (there is no such thing) and am planning to deliver leftover beef to a friend later today. I knew the score when I decorated and baked, but I persisted. Now I wonder how much of this activity is programmed into me. This is something I’ve thought about a lot during the COVID-19 days and months.
Like cooking, cleaning has dominated my thoughts and movements during the last 9 months. Not having the distraction of a job, I looked at my house more critically and saw dirt everywhere. There were the many stages of cleaning: bargaining when I tried to enlist my husband and son in the deep cleaning process. Denial when I decided the house was “clean enough.” And finally acceptance when I began the new (cleaning) deal. First I went through closets and cupboards, deciding what brought me joy (not much by May) and what I would donate or throw away. I filled my little SUV twice and am on a first name basis with the woman who runs the animal rescue second hand store. I offered a first look at clothes to friends and my sister, and every now and then I get to see something I once owned walk by or appear in a photo. I foisted—there is no other word—bread baskets with metal leaves (very Autumn) on a friend. Hey, they were really cool; I just never used them. The value in this process was realizing that I didn’t have the life of a professional educator with 62 employees and 900 students anymore. Yes, the retirement parties were a clue, and yes, I donated suits and blazers to an organization that helped women who were trying to get jobs. But all that was fairly superficial, nowhere near the purge of April and May.
When I cleaned out closets and cabinets, I also cleaned the shelves, floors, and doors. This eventually led me to the reorganization phase. Everything in the linen closet is in a cloth box; off season blankets, shams, bedspreads, and seasonal towels either hit the road or were packed into those plastic things with zippers the you get when you buy blankets, sheets, etc. And those shelves are neat.
And everything is accessible—to me—because I’m the only one who needs to get into that closet. On the rare occasion that someone with a Y chromosome needs a towel or something else from the linen closet, he is accompanied by me. I will not have my organization messed with. I will not!
Later (September-October) I tackled the kitchen. First there was an orgy of ordering on Amazon. In the process I acquired way more pan racks, pasta containers, and spice drawers than any human being requires. Then I pulled everything out of the drawers and cupboards. Everything. This was followed by another purge and another trip to the animal rescue store. I cleaned and disinfected, read “The Joy of Tidying Up” (again), and reorganized. It was a bit cruel for my husband since he does the dishes, but he retaliated by leaving on the counter anything he couldn’t find a place for. Over time that excuse hasn’t worked as well for him and things are looking good in the kitchen.
He seems to be genetically incapable of dealing with the snapware but I can work around that. I’m always in the kitchen anyway, usually spot cleaning the hardwood floor, which shows every drop of water, smidgeon of dust, and tiny food particle. If this floor is ever replaced, I will have a beautiful laminate with a busy pattern installed. Just saying.
Speaking of always in the kitchen … I started the quarantine by preparing three meals a day. I don’t do that anymore but I’m still cooking too much. I don’t know how to stop. And I’ve figured out why I’m compelled to cook, clean, and constantly reorganize. First, I’m in the age group of women who demanded equality and earned the opportunity to do everything. By everything, I mean have a full-time job and do the majority of the cleaning, cooking and child rearing chores. We had it all, all right. I laugh, I mean cry, when I think how I saw my mother as drudge because she was stuck at home doing all the housework. By the time my sister was in school my mother could deal with the house in a couple of hours and have the rest of the day free. She had good female friends and they got together frequently to bowl or shop or play bridge or take weekend trips. My mother used to say that she was a “second class citizen.” I’m not completely sure what she meant by that , but I think it had to do with her putting up with my father’s expectations that she would do everything. Looking at it from my perspective it seems like a pretty good deal if someone else is bringing in the money. I don’t think I know a single woman in my age group who “stayed at home.” All of my friends juggled career and home, and if they “only worked” part time, they paid for it later by retiring later or poorer. Either way, we all scrambled and we’re all paying for it now.
I think the urge to clean is in our DNA, put there by our mothers. The girl children were enlisted to do the menial chores while the boy children had to do manly things like paint or change the oil. It is a rare man who can’t out wait his woman when it comes to housework. I literally cannot bear a mess (thanks, Mom) and so I end up cleaning way before any man I know would be bothered. The other thing that drives me to newer and more ridiculous heights of housework is my in-box. Everyday “Southern Living”, “Better Homes and Gardens,” that bitch from “One Good Thing”, Martha Stewart, and every company I’ve ever bought from sends me at least one email about housework. Today Jilly from OGT (not really a bitch, probably a very nice person) emailed her hints for tidying the kitchen in 15 minutes. I’m not kidding. In the past month, she has shared 31 uses for WD-40, 9 surprising problems you can solve with good old white glue, the 11 best reasons to never throw out a ripe banana, and the answers to the top 9 searched cleaning questions. I’m still not kidding. She emails every day, including Christmas, and I’ve saved all of the ones I just listed. Even worse, I’ve read most of them.
Today Martha weighed in with 3 herbal infusions to sip all winter long and a DIY cardigan to keep you warm. She must’ve been having an off day because there was nothing about the Pantone color of the year (a favorite topic of hers). Her other favorite thing is to send recipes for cakes that a professional baker would find difficult to make. One thing I am grateful for is that Martha’s relentless tips for Christmas activities have stopped. No longer am I plagued with ways to fabric wrap gifts or assemble those 39 make-ahead casseroles. Thanks to Martha, I now have the royal family’s Christmas pudding cake recipe. I can die happy now.
Also today I received emails about deals at grocery stores and sales from Grove, a company that sells a lot of organic cleaning products. I found out that I’m probably arranging the furniture in my living room wrong. In case my imagination completely fails me, “Southern Living” shared funny Christmas quotes worth repeating, and cute and clever Christmas captions for Instagram. “Better Homes and Gardens” shared the 50 most popular dog names from 2020. There were no references to the pandemic, but I think Ollie and Luna should thank their lucky stars they weren’t named Covid and Virus.
Is it any wonder that I feel inadequate when it comes to homemaking (I believe that’s the term). Somewhere in the sea of “helpful” emails is the occasional message from “Calm.” It’s usually a reminder to slow down, meditate, listen to some music, or a soothing bedtime story. I have the Calm app and it’s a great way to turn off the hectoring voices in my head and go to sleep. I’ve accepted my fate and I know the frenzy to clean and cook won’t abate until I can once again get out of this house and see people. Because the isolation is the hardest part, and even my close and intimate relationship with Martha Stewart doesn’t meet that need. Hang in there, ladies, and, for God’s sake, slow down.
Erin Stuart has lived in Shasta County since 1977 when she began teaching high school English and Drama. After 27 years she became an administrator and was one of the founders of U-Prep. Since her retirement she has traveled, started several novels, learned to crochet, become obsessed with gardening, and read almost as much as she would like.