Hausfrau

‘wild’ darning

Finally, a hausfrau. After doing respectable work, or work that I hope is respected, for all of my adult life, I am reveling in what are quaintly called the domestic arts, even those I usually avoid like cooking. (Baking is another matter altogether.) It helps that the Coronavirus has us all in self-imposed quarantines. I was already used to the silence. I need it to write. But then silence isn’t really the point: time is.

I’ve never felt it to be so accommodating. Usually the hours are an obstacle course of obligations, self-imposed for the most part. But now there is no sense of inappropriateness if, at say 10 a.m., I choose to darn a woolen scarf and keep darning until I find the peculiar pattern I wasn’t expecting to see. The knitting I’d kept on the evening margin of the day comes out whenever the stitching gets boring. In between there is the laundry to do and letters (a.k.a., emails) I want to write, like this one to myself. And eventually, the floor will get swept and the bathroom scrubbed, but when I want to, not on any schedule.

Of course, a legitimate hausfrau would be far more organized and watchful of the clock. After all, the word is German. I use it because my father used it. He said it with a measure of affection (his mother was an Austro-Hungarian hausfrau) but also with bit of caution. I was not supposed to be one, even though I was put through domestic boot camp. My sister Chris and I would help my mother dust and mop. In those years (the late 1950s) before the next three children came, cleaning was done on a schedule: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were light cleaning days; Saturday brought out the heavy artillery of vacuum cleaner and cleansers. Plus, we had to go over every surface again, but even more thoroughly. (This always puzzled me; I really resented cleaning when you couldn’t see any dirt or dust. To this day, dusting is something I only do when we have people ‘over’ and that is virtually never now that we’re in retreat from each other.)

The training of a young girl in the household arts, however, wasn’t restricted to domestic hygiene. Thankfully, it also included learning to embroider, knit, crochet, and sew. Walking into a fabric store rivaled going to the library. There was so much temptation, so much choice: printed velvets, roughly woven tweeds, fine woolen plaids. Though, often as not, sheer material attraction proved stronger than any sense of appropriateness. When I think about the dress I made out of a yard of navy and Kelly-green corduroy, I cringe. (I knew it was wrong even then. But you didn’t waste money. You wore your mistakes.)

First sweater (1963)

In any case, I was grateful to my aunt who taught me to knit the Continental way, for it put me in the company of her mother and hers before her. I couldn’t have known when I knit my first sweater at the age of 13 that I would have to put away my needles and embroidery hoops as a child puts away her toys. Coming of age in the late 1960s meant trading them in for a new consciousness. Hence, the caution in my father’s use of hausfrau, early feminist that he was. In fact, one of his much repeated refrains at the time was, “Any fool can get married.”

Only 17 when I first heard him say it – along with the caveat that if I did get married in college, any tuition support would end – I was mildly disconcerted. It contradicted everything I’d seen in movies and heard on the radio. Songs like “Cherish” by The Association had promised a future of gowns with sweetheart necklines and a man who would cherish me. I wanted to be loved. Now the only thing on offer was ‘free love’ without commitment.

The concomitant move from A-line shifts to peasant dresses signaled you were less uptight, though in fact you were probably not much more liberated than the wenches who wore them first. (Women’s liberation was actually more men’s.) Nonetheless, being a competitive sort, I was damned if I was going to be kept behind by my bourgeois hankerings for decorum. And, in fact, after weathering the years of sexual revolution, I emerged thankful to my more radical counterparts, whose insistence on women’s rights insured that I would work long and happily outside of the home while having a home. Still, I have a vestigial feeling of having missed something, which I suppose is why I take inordinate pleasure in my resumption of needle and threads. Now there’s time for that too.

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