“The work, the work was never done. In my grandmother’s house, the housework churned like laundry viewed through a front-loading washing machine.
“My grandmother had a washing machine with a round porthole in front. The capacity was not large. She was annoyed to see things return to the laundry soon after seeing them there before…
“When the washer completed its cycle, she squeezed the wet things through a handwringer. For laundry, she didn’t bother with the dumb-waiter, a rope-drawn lift that brought heavy loads from basement to upstairs hall. In her blue-and-gray felt slippers, she ported the basket of wet wash, up the hard cellar steps.
“She leaned out her bedroom window to hang the wash, pulling a length of clothesline through the pulley, snapping on the clothespins, pushing the cord and garment away into breeze and sunshine, where it would dry.
“My mother did housework when we came to [my grandmother’s house in] New York. My father made repairs and ran errands, we children happily in tow. My mother cleaned the bathroom, changed beds, scrubbed floors. She washed dishes in hot, soapy water, and when she was done, she scoured the kitchen sink.
“She worked beside her mother-in-law, hoping to please and also because there was so much to do. There was furniture to wax, and silver to polish, and candlewax to carefully scrape from candlesticks. There were rugs to vacuum, and shmates, rags, to shake outside and then soak in bleach in a bucket downstairs. The corners of closets, smelling of mothballs, could not be neglected. Glass jars were useful; they had to be washed and dried. One never threw out a mayonnaise jar.
“We had environmentalism. They had thrift.
“My grandmother rose at dawn. When I got up, she already was stirring the oatmeal, already lifting out skillets and saucepans from the cupboards, and bringing butter and eggs from the icebox in the hall…
“The preparations for dinner commenced after breakfast. The kitchen table, fully extended and layered protectively with newspapers, received a succession of peelings, pits, trimmings, offal, eggshells. There was chopping, dicing, rolling, slicing, mixing. Bowls and pots and implements came out, were used, got washed and dried, and were stacked securely once again. Burners were lit, ovens heated. Soups must be stirred and puddings timed…In mitn d’rinen – in the middle of everything – the women stopped to make everyone lunch.
“Toward dinner hour, the work became frantic. Coordination of courses and children and table, keeping the sink always empty to receive the next lot of soiled pots, dishes, ladles and spoons. My grandmother had, with two daughters’ help, done all this for years for a sizable household: a husband, three children, her mother-in-law, and my dad’s youngest uncle, who slept on the living room divan when the family was young. My mother, as a child, had helped her own mother in much the same way.
“There was serving and clearing and wrapping up food after the evening meal. They washed, dried, inventoried, put away. The table was wiped, the floors must be swept, the garbage put out. The clock was ticking. The time was late. The women were exhausted.
“They didn’t know I was at the door when my grandmother, reminiscing, spoke: ‘And then, you get into bed, and you’re still not finished.'”
—“Sex”, from Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich, Penguin Books 1997.