“It’s 4:30!” I yelled at my kid sister as she lay on the couch lazily watching afternoon cartoons. Johnette looked at me with wide eyes then bolted upright, rolled off the couch, and hit the floor running. “I’ll get the garbage!” she shouted over her shoulder. She sprinted to the kitchen while I ran to the hall closet to get the vacuum. Between the two of us, we vacuumed and dusted the living room, swept and mopped the kitchen floor, and scrubbed the bathroom sink. Not only did we cook dinner and set the table, we also had a cup of tea sitting on the kitchen counter, hot and ready for Mama when she walked in the door from work. At 5pm.
Johnette and I might have ‘fist-bumped’ if it was a thing back in the 1970s. Then again, our accomplishment wasn’t a big deal. We ran that same thirty minute “dash and stash” every day. Procrastination was the name of our game. Especially when it came to housekeeping.
I was sixteen and Johnette was ten years old the summer we finally coordinated our efforts. Johnette had been my unpaid summer job from the time she was six years old until I left home. I would have complained about the free labor if it had ever occurred to me that complaining was an option. Good thing I never thought of it. My mom was a woman not to be reckoned with.
During summers, Mama woke us up before she left for work and reminded us to check her list that was always on the kitchen table. Chores galore. A typical list included making our beds, cleaning our rooms, dusting the living room, sweeping and vacuuming the floors. Once a week, the list included mowing the lawn which was one job I actually enjoyed doing. I even pulled weeds voluntarily. Sun tans were in vogue in the 1960s and I was working on a great one.
The chores got done before Mom walked in the door every evening. That’s not to say they were done well. I figured out that as long as everything was picked up and the house looked neat, Mom was satisfied. If she had ever looked under the rug, under our beds, or in the back of our closets, war would have broken out.
We vacuumed the large braided rug in the living room and had to sweep the wooden floors around the rug. It wouldn’t have taken two extra minutes to sweep up the grime and dirt into a dust pan, but that was too much trouble. I swept it under the rug. Mama never noticed that, but heavens to Betsy if I tried to dust the end table without moving the lamp or her ash tray! She always spotted a sloppy dusting job and made us do it all over again – one tedious step at a time with her watching every move.
I asked my older sister Brenda if she was subjected to the chore list as a kid too. She and our sister Karen were teenagers when I was born and had already left home by the time I was tall enough to do dishes. “Karen and I fooled around all day until fifteen minutes before Mama came home. Then Dishes were done, clothes were ironed, floors were vacuumed, furniture was dusted, the table was set and the dinner was done. And Mama’s cup of tea was on the counter.” Wow. Karen and Brenda could do it in fifteen minutes!
Karen and Brenda were only two years apart and shared a bedroom growing up. When Mama told them to clean their room, Karen dutifully went to their room and threw everything in the closet. Then she’d tell Mama “I cleaned the whole room. Brenda can clean the closet!”
“I never learned my lesson. Karen beat me to the bedroom every time,” Brenda laughed. “I think Karen was like Mama in that respect.” Brenda remembered hearing stories from Mama’s sister Dorothy. The two shared a bedroom and a full size bed when they were growing up in Port Chicago. Mama never liked housework but she liked it neat and tidy. Aunt Dorothy and Mom literally had a line drawn down the middle of their room. Mom did not do one speck more work than she had to. My mother was a pro at making just her half of the bed.
When I was fifteen I flew back East to help Brenda her with her three preschoolers. She was on bed rest because she was expecting twins. Cleaning house and playing with my nieces and nephew was fun, not work. I was surprised one day to see Brenda with a broom in her hands. She a rag tied around the brush end of the broom and was sweeping the ceiling! I asked her “What on earth she doing?” “My in-laws are coming to visit,” she replied! Like that explained everything.
A clean house to my mother was nothing like a clean house to Brenda’s mother-in-law. At our house in California, we swept under the beds maybe once a month. At her mother-in-law’s house in Long Island, New York, the beds were swept under daily! “It must have been part of the East Coast culture” Brenda mused. Her mother-in-law and the rest of the family not only did a deep spring cleaning every year, they changed the drapes and rugs by season. I embarrassed my sister the first time I visited her in-laws by asking if the furniture was new. It was still all wrapped up in plastic. It had to be new, right? Unfortunately, that’s how I learned what clear vinyl slipcovers were.
Even though she hated doing housework, having a clean house was important to my mother. She felt that it reflected on what kind of people we were. Back in the day people didn’t warn you ahead of time that they were coming. Phone calls cost money. You didn’t just pick up the phone if you wanted to ask a question of your neighbor. You walked across the street. No one thought it was bad manners to stop by unannounced. We never knew when the aunts and uncles would pop in for a quick visit and a cup of tea. It was important to be ready at all times.
When I was growing up the phrase ‘slave labor’ crossed my mind a lot. But in retrospect, I’m glad I had chores to do. Knowing how to cook, clean and organize my time helped me to grow into a self-sufficient adult. But the best thing about being required to do chores around the house was the pride and feeling of security that came with being part of a team. I was invested in my home and family and they were invested in me.
And you know what? My nieces and nephews and my own children grew up finding a pad of paper with a list of chores to be done on their kitchen table, too. A cup of tea might not be hot and ready to go on the kitchen counter, but their homes are neat and tidy. I haven’t caught any of them at it yet – but I strongly suspect that they are all masters of the thirty minute “dash and stash” too!