Domestic goddess—it’s Roseanne Arnold’s term and it’s what I’m supposed to be. That is, I opt out of the marketplace in favor of staying home. This suggests reveling in housewifery, defined when I was in school in terms of the twin pillars of cooking and sewing. I am supposed to find satisfaction slipcovering wing chairs in an afternoon and maintaining at all times delectable aromas wafting from the kitchen. Red alert, identity crisis: to me, purgatory means temporary assignment as a caterer; hell, permanent.
As for the “s” word, I was the only student in the history of Mount Saint Mary’s Academy in danger of flunking “Needle and Thread.” Sister Austin, eightysomething, believed in the Apostle’s Creed and handsewing a fine seam. With incredible ease, classmates dispatched the requisite apron and advanced to machinery. I spent the entire year sewing unacceptable stitches, ripping them out, and starting again on an increasingly thin piece of cotton. By June, my peers had wardrobes of many seasons, while I still labored to master the running stitch. Her reputation as well as her longevity threatened by my ineptitude, Sister Austin finally hauled me off to Reverend Mother. How could she pass, integrity intact, someone clearly a failure? This posed a greater dilemma for the directress because I was, in other disciplines, an honor student. In the end I resolved the problem with words, in many ways a portent. I would write a script for the school assembly showcase about a Pan Am ’round-the-world tour. This would allow classmates to alight from the cardboard plane appropriately garbed for frigid or torrid climes. The assembly was a hit; Sister Austin felt absolved; I passed.
As for antipathy to cooking (as opposed to dining), let me follow the current vogue and blame my family. No doubt the root of the trouble was my maternal grandmother, who came to live with us after her native Bronx became Beirut. My mother, never a confident cook, retreated to periodic fluttering over simmering gravy and wondering if the turkey were done. Grandmother, monarch of the kitchen, never invited me to learn tricks of the trade. On the contrary, she shooed me away with a peremptory “Never mind, I’ll do it.” Mother added, “You’ll make such a mess.” Thus it was I entered the nuptial bond unsure of how to make Jello. To this day I run the risk of producing a Goodyear tire under five inches of runny stuff. My family peels hardboiled eggs only if standing over the sink. One out of three is destined for sunny-side-up.
Not that I am a total flop. There was a nightmare era when I was caught in a social circuit and had to give frequent dinner parties. Relying on Julia Child, I lugged her hefty tomes from counter to counter, dutifully slicing and dicing. Mother and my daughters constituted an assembly line of involuntary servitude. I can’t forget the littered Formica, looking like Mr. McGregor’s cabbage patch, a cornucopia of savaged veggies waiting enhancement for salad or hors d’oeuvres. Not that preparation for dinner parties began on the festive day. From the moment it dawned on me that it was my turn again, feverish activity ensued. The process was exhausting, reminiscent of term papers. There was preliminary research, endless recipe reading, guarding against duplication of menus served, and final decisions. Then came compiling the scroll of ingredients, the shopathon for same, preparing, cooking, serving, and the inevitable cleanup. On balance, it didn’t. Two hours at the table were scarcely compensatory for the preceding drudgery. I recall the sight of one hostess, slumped on a couch, regarding the wreckage of a large dinner party. “Oh, well,” she murmured, spent and stuporous, “now I’m owed fifteen invitations.”
I know there are those who love to cook. After all, there are those whose idea of vacation is foraging in the wilderness, trying to avoid serpents, Lyme disease, and Smokey Bear. But what are the “joys” of cooking? Those fabulous dinners, served to a staggering array of guests—what survives? By contrast, I can at this moment pull from my files my definitive analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” written as a college sophomore. Sure, it reflects lots of time in the stacks doing research, scribbling mightily on 3 x S cards, organizing and typing the whole thing up. But the fruits of labor remain. Here it is, decades later, a dazzling if completely daffy analysis of a literary landmark. I am rewarded in perpetuity. But cooking? My attitude is sublimely expressed in a freeze-frame of Mary (Tyler Moore) Richards tossing, with palpable ennui, a comestible into her shopping cart.
Concerned readers may wonder if my aversions genetically doom two potential domestic goddesses. The answer would confound Sister Austin. I delivered one daughter who, at the age of 10, made identical dresses for herself and a younger sibling, went on to sew elaborate costumes for her ballet recitals, and now thinks nothing of making drapes and other fine furnishings. She does, however, forswear cooking, declaring that any prospective husband will be literate and expected to fix his own meals. Conversely, daughter number two is a galloping gourmet who last Christmas prepared dinner for ten with all the trimmings. To please a southern boyfriend she duplicated (his) Mom’s home cooking, sparing us grits but presenting a delectable feast of regional delights. Word is in that she just made a purse. So much for mother’s milk.
For years I fretted and felt guilty about disliking kitchen duty, actually not coming out of the broom closet until now. In today’s world of fast food and fake food (no sugar, no fat, no sodium), the fact that my favorite three little words are “let’s eat out” scarcely tears the social fabric. But it isn’t the passing of family meals or the advent of the microwave oven which relieved my distress. My source for support and consolation was biblical. It came after a disastrous evening when I ruined saltimbocca because I couldn’t tear myself away from lively conversation in the living room. Full of remorse for ignoring details of hospitality, I suddenly realized Jesus Christ was on my side. There it is, right in St. Luke, chapter 10. Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to His words, while Martha bustles about doing household tasks. Miffed, Martha points out the injustice to Jesus who responds, in modern paraphrase, “Cool it, Martha, Mary has her priorities in order.”
More redemptive words do not exist; I am exonerated. Mary Richards, St. Luke’s Mary, and me. Three’s company.