I have bread rising just now. After I’d put the dough into an oiled bowl—the perfect size with a silicon lid that exactly fits—I washed the measuring cups and the scrapers, the measuring spoon and the mixer bowl and paddle, and finally, since I was at it, the coffee cups from breakfast. Then I dried and put everything away, wiped down the counters, and remembered my mother.
It was my job to do the dishes by the time I was eight—never my brother’s job as he was given the lawn and paid more to do it in his adolescence and teens, facts I resented even then. But for at least the past twenty years or so, washing the dishes has been my husband’s job. We both had full-time jobs outside the home by then. I had more homework. (“You are never off the clock,” he observed more than once. He came home and left the work at work.) I cook. He cleans. I paint walls. He gardens. (I do feel I got the better end of the deal.) We are meticulous about sharing how money is spent. (Except for gifts to one another—we are even allowed to lie about that.)
Anyway. Dishes. The hot tap water scalded my hands and I hated rubber gloves. The entire task was nasty and I resented it.
A couple of years ago we were staying at friends’ beautiful cabin. After a lovely dinner, our host was washing the dishes and I did not help. I knew I should lend a hand but I felt rather helpless. Perhaps it had been too long since I did dishes or I was lazy? Perhaps I had lost some measure of self-sufficiency?
So my friend washed the dishes, dried and put them away, perhaps. I was not paying full attention. Then, in a final step, she wiped out the sink, and it all came back to me. My mother always wiped out the sink and wiped down the counters after doing the dishes. She used a mop to scrub the kitchen floor.
I had done that myself, once upon a time. It struck me, oddly, as a powerful wave of memory, of habits discarded, or skills set aside by necessity because of the long hours I worked while teaching and advising yearbook, caring for children, writing, and completing a fourth degree.
I used to wipe out the sink.
I used to get down on my knees and scrub the floors each week, tip furniture back and vacuum every other day, brush my teeth twice a day, floss, and carry out the trash. I took my young sons out for a walk and often carried at least one of them home again. I canned tomatoes and peaches too.
The mystery novels I am reading just now obsess over protecting private schools and colleges where all “the best people” and “the best women” attend school. Since I am reading this author’s books in chronological order, I note the author becomes increasingly willing to acknowledge politics, her own feminism, and her fear of aging, but she never lets up on class snobbery, which she fervently denies, of course. Those best people. Or as Woolf’s character Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse declares to herself: “the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor.”
I paused for a long time over “the poor.”
There is a grammatical structure called parallelism in a list, something I used to teach. “I went to the store to get apples, milk, pepper, and toilet paper.” A list of nouns separated by commas. (That last comma before the “and” is referred to as a “serial” or “Oxford comma,” and some of us have strong feelings about whether it should be used. Yes, it should.) Parallel structures exist in any list, such as verbs—”He ran, jumped, and fell down”—and can be more than single words—Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house…” To be parallel, a list of nouns must be all nouns, all verbs of the same tense, all prepositional phrases, or whatever.
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. [I double-checked the caps—Jefferson capped his essential human rights.]
Pause and look again at Woolf’s three words, “suffering, death, the poor.” Suffering and death are situations, but “the poor” are people. Suffering and death afflict everyone, may be avoided or delayed but not escaped. According to the structure of this sentence, so are the poor. An inevitable affliction? She could have said “suffering, death, and poverty” to herself. Poverty is another affliction, though not one this particular character ever experienced. Neither did Woolf herself experience poverty. (She and her husband owned properties when she complained of poverty.) It is poor people who are the affliction in this grammar.
Before we begin talking, as some people like to do, about class warriors, consider the inequality of the battle. Consider who is winning in a battle against poverty and who loses. Consider who fights from gilded mansions while whining about class warfare.
Self-sufficiency is a major reason I do not have my hair cut, have not visited a “beauty salon” since I was a child. I cut my own hair and when I colored it with henna or purple dye, I did it myself. I have never had a manicure, though I have considered one. I have changed tires and headlights myself, painted walls and laid tile, and built fencing and wainscoting. I have never sheered a sheep, but I have carded, spun, and dyed yarn. Over the years I have experimented with most every traditional woman’s craft and a good number of those given to men. Gary and I have never hired anyone to clean for us or to run errands or to do the gardening. Sometimes cleanliness suffered, the errands were not done, and the garden was a wreck. We were okay with that for a variety of reasons. It didn’t matter compared to the rest. Usually, we could not afford to have things done for us. We always believed we should do for ourselves as much as possible.
As we age, this will change. Two lamps are waiting to be installed in the ceiling outside the laundry. We will not be the ones to install them. Gary is forbidden to go on the roof. I refuse to crawl under the house ever again. There will be tasks we ignore or hire others to complete.
Poverty is not something I can personally cure. “The poor” are sometimes “the best people.” I know this from my lived experience.
And while I would be a fool to think anyone is ever entirely self-sufficient, I can still bake bread. I can wipe out the sink when I am done.