Housework by the book?

Excuse the mess, but we live here.” — Roseanne Barr

IMG_2347When we moved into our first apartment in 1980, my architect husband and I rarely discussed the delicate issue of housework. Newly married and devoted to our business careers, Doug and I left early for work every weekday morning, tripping over mounds of unfolded laundry and dust bunnies as we headed for the door. We rushed through domestic chores on Saturdays, never quite sure who was responsible for emptying the trash or disinfecting the toilet bowl.

All of this came tumbling back last summer, when I discovered some old books on housekeeping at a second-hand bookstore. Blowing layers of dust from their covers, I was rewarded with some fascinating glimpses of early Americana.

First published in 1924, Good Housekeeping’s The Business of Housekeeping, by Mildred Maddocks Bentley, was a veritable textbook on the domestic arts. Its mildewed, yellowing pages reminded me that household management was once taken seriously. Speaking to young brides, the book covered such topics as “Managing Servants and Housekeepers,” “Dishwashing Three Times a Day,”  “Sprinkling and Folding,” and “The Chemistry of Washing.”

As the book’s title suggested, Mrs. Bentley meant business:  “The good housekeeper must bring to her task of housekeeping every one of the qualities that make for a successful executive in the downtown business world.”

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Another artifact, Housekeeping Made Simple (The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, Inc.), was published in 1952, two years before I was born. Editor Miriam B. Reichl revealed that, after WWII, women had lightened up a bit and were looking for labor-saving methods. The average housewife, after all, no longer employed domestic help.

Reichl’s book contained some amusing black and white photo-illustrations. One showed a woman smiling broadly (and, yes, wearing high heels and pearls) as she demonstrated several ways to use a vacuum. Another shot featured an attractive woman doing laundry in a satin evening gown. Male models were conspicuously absent.

Back in the late ’70s, when I was single and rented my first apartment, books devoted to home economics (or “Home Eck” as my girlfriends called it) were rare — although my friends and I could have used a few tips on stocking a pantry or planning balanced meals. We left housework to the cleaning fairies.

Even today, few men or women admit they enjoy doing anything remotely domestic, unless it makes them as rich as Martha Stewart. Homemaking is messy business, after all — something we’d rather hire someone else to do if we can afford it.

“You keep a house, but you make a home,” observes anthropology professor Mary Catherine Bateson in Composing A Life (Plume/Penguin). “As we free the ideas of home and homemaking from their links to old gender roles, we can now also draw on metaphors of home to enrich our perceptions of the world.”  Home, after all, is where everyone begins.

Of course, I’d never welcome another era in which women have few career options beyond vacuuming. And I’d hate to see ironing raised to an art form. But I agree with Bateson when she suggests that we lose our sense of place — the foundation that keeps us grounded — when we neglect the home front. The driveway becomes a mere parking lot; the house exudes an atmosphere as impersonal as a chain motel.

Lately I’ve noticed a new crop of home-care guides in local bookstores. These books are saturated with a deep yearning for the comfort of roots and shelter. Unlike their predecessors, they’re refreshingly devoid of sexism, though women will most likely buy them. Whether or not younger Americans will embrace a homemaking revival remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still arguing over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom.

–Part of this essay is excerpted from my column collection, Writing Home, now available in Kindle and print editions on Amazon.com —      

Telling stories with art

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” — Stella Adler

DSCN3582Not long ago, a friend asked: Which came first — making art or writing stories? Her question got me thinking about the new direction my creative life is taking.

Looking back on my childhood, I recall watching my mother as she mixed her oil paints on a glass palette. In those days Mom worked at home as a color artist, tinting portraits of brides and high school students for local photography studios.

Like most kids, I was fascinated with art supplies, and seized every opportunity to make a mess. There’s an old family story about the time I grabbed one of Mom’s paint brushes, then somehow ended up in the emergency room with the brush stuck in my nose. I was barely a year old — but the accident never discouraged my urge to dabble in art.

Over the years, however, my interest in books and writing grew stronger. And while I always managed to take art classes, even in college, I was discouraged from trying a career in art. How many artists make a living selling their work?

My college professors urged me to pursue writing. I could argue my way through any topic, and was even advised to consider law school. (I know … I can hear you laughing.) After college, the field of journalism wasn’t exactly wide open, but I managed to find interesting work at publishing companies, magazines, and newspapers.

But I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that making art gave me the creative freedom I’d been missing from the calculated process of writing and editing.”

After I married and became a mother, freelance writing provided the flexible schedule I needed. The writing life was near-perfect for two decades, in fact, and I loved it.
Circus

By the time my son left for college, however, freelance budgets began evaporating. Publications folded up and disappeared like traveling circuses. And while I didn’t suffer a full-blown midlife crisis in my empty nest, I desperately needed to be excited about something again.

Why not art? Heading to the local craft supply store, I felt my heart lift for the first time in ages. I started making cards and notepads for friends, then tried bigger projects — altered books, shrines, and mixed-media assemblages. I made mistakes; I learned new skills.

All along, it occurred to me that I was still telling stories — just using different materials. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that making art gave me the pure creative freedom that I’d been missing from the calculated process of writing and editing.

Not that I’m giving up the writing life entirely — but I’ve decided to make 2013 my official “Art Year.”  I’ve promised myself to create at least one new art project a week, whether it’s a birthday box for a friend or an entry for an art competition.

Though I’ve had several of my altered books and collages accepted in Michigan art competitions, one of my long-range goals is to have enough quality work for a solo art show. And I’d like to start selling a few of my pieces. Maybe I won’t make a living as an artist, but my soul is telling me to follow my heart — before any more time gets away from me.

So far, I’m off to a great start. Two of my pieces were selected for the Anton Art Center’s 40 Michigan Annual (through February 23), and I recently learned that several photographs of my pieces were accepted for publication in a new anthology showcasing writing and artwork from the Midwest.

If you’d like to have a look at what I’ve been up to in my studio, please click here to visit my project gallery on Facebook. For regular updates on all of my projects, please “like” Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office and Studio on Facebook.— Cindy La Ferle

— Original artwork by Cindy La Ferle. For a larger view of both art pieces shown in this post, please click on each photo. —

Soup for the soul

To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.” — Laurie Colwin

As my best friends will tell you, I’m your go-to gal if you need a good soup recipe. Come winter, there’s always something simmering in my slow cooker or on the stove — thick-as-a-brick pea soup, creamy potato porridge, vegetarian chili, or a savory minestrone.

The way I see it, homemade soup is a remedy for nearly everything.

It’s guaranteed to speed the recovery of a neighbor who’s nursing a broken heart or the common cold. It fortifies the friend who just returned home after knee surgery. In fact, homemade soup has a language all its own, which makes it ideal when you’re struggling to find a way to express sympathy to grieving families. It also works to convey gratitude when we need to reciprocate a kindness or a favor.

It’s methodical but soothing — the whole process of making soup from scratch.

I always begin with fresh produce from the market, then I gather the right combo of herbs and spices from the pantry, or, if I’m lucky, from the small potted “garden” in my kitchen window sill.  From the moment I start chopping onions and garlic, every muscle and nerve in my body begins to loosen or unwind. And while I work, I think about the loved ones who’ll receive the first helping when my soup is finished and the flavor has mellowed.

That said, the soup I make at home never tastes quite as delicious as the soup from someone else’s kitchen. So when I’m feeling especially cranky or lazy, I head over to Niki’s, my favorite local diner here in Royal Oak. If you were a diehard fan of the long-running Gilmore Girls TV series, you probably remember Luke’s Diner, right? Well, Niki’s is just that sort of place –a cozy hangout where you’ll likely rub elbows with a neighbor at the counter.

Best of all, the soup at Niki’s is always homemade — and the perfect prelude to my favorite Greek salad on Main Street.

I’ve known Donna, the owner and cook, for so many years that I’ve lost count of all the gloomy winter afternoons I spent in her back-corner booth with my notebook and a pending column deadline. Those afternoons were always warmed by Donna’s chicken noodle, spinach-tortellini, or cabbage soups. I still like to remind Donna that she makes the best soup in town, and that I’ll always be her biggest fan.

Whenever you’re in need of a little home-cooked comfort — and your own mom isn’t around or able to provide it – it helps to have at least one good cook like Donna at the ready. We all need someone who can ladle out the perfect bowl of soul-filling soup, especially on chilly midwinter afternoons.

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My favorite slow-cooker pea soup recipe:

16-oz package of Spartan (brand) green split peas

6 cups of water

1 large onion, chopped

5 or 6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves and/or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup finely sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

Use a large slow cooker; set it on high. Add the six cups of water. Rinse the split peas, then add to the water. Chop the onion and saute in olive oil with dried oregano and crushed garlic until onions are translucent and slightly brown.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the slow cooker and stir; add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for five or six hours until the potatoes are soft and the soup is thick. (If you’re pressed for time, add a can of sliced/cooked potatoes to the batch during the last hour, instead of the fresh potatoes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I love making this all-day vegetarian soup in the slow cooker; I can leave it alone and let the flavors meld for hours. It tastes even better the next day, and there’s plenty to share. P.S. Prior to serving this soup, I might add a dash of sherry to each bowl, plus a dollop of sour cream, to make it more like a French Potage St. Germain.— CL

Home for the holidays

Proceeds from the holiday sales of my book, Writing Home, are donated annually to organizations serving the homeless.  Since the book’s first printing in 2005, I’ve had the honor of donating several hundred dollars from book sales and speaker fees to both the Welcome Inn and South Oakland Shelter, here in metro Detroit.

Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.”  ~Washington Irving

I do this every year because “home” always tops my gratitude list. I’m blessed to live in a wonderful old house in the middle of a neighborhood and community I love. And that, in a nutshell, is what the stories in Writing Home are all about. Yet here in this same community of established neighborhoods and solid vintage homes, there’s a homeless population that’s been hit twice as hard by Detroit’s long-suffering economy. Like others in my neighborhood, I want to help.

Now in its 2nd printing and available on Kindle, copies of Writing Home can be purchased on Amazon.com for less than $20 and mailed in time for holiday giving. And you can feel good about the fact that $5 of your holiday purchase will benefit someone in need (not the author or publisher). If you live in Oakland County, look for the book at the Yellow Door Art Market in Berkley or at the Royal Oak Historical Museum.

Thank you for your support this year. From my home to yours, I wish you a heart filled with gratitude for all that you have.— Cindy La Ferle

Mothering myself

Mother is a verb, not a noun.”  ~ English Proverb

It’s going to take several days to recover from last week’s domestic flurry – a self-inflicted storm of floor washing, napkin ironing, furniture polishing, and grocery shopping. As most women would, I blamed it initially on the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I would be hosting out-of-town guests.

But the truth is, my out-of-town guests were my son and his wife – dear ones who’ve seen our home in its most chaotic state and are not particularly fussy.

As it happened, I wasn’t even scheduled to cook the big Thanksgiving meal this year. I knew we’d be taking my mother (whose vascular dementia is monitored at a nearby assisted-living residence) to dinner at a local restaurant. A culinary no-brainer.

And as for kitchen duty, my only obligation was to provide breakfast, lunch, or light snacks for our small family of four throughout the weekend.

So why all the fuss? Was it simply my old holiday anxiety rearing its annual, festive head? Or was I trying to impress my new daughter-in-law, who was spending the nights with our son in the guest room?

None of the above.

It wasn’t until my son pointed out that I was getting a tad neurotic about freshening the bathroom towels every half hour that I realized my housekeeping-on-steroids was another symptom of grief and mother loss.

Before I explain, bear with me while I spin through a Dickensian-style flashback of winter holidays past … Back when my mother was a busy commercial artist and homemaker who loved to entertain guests … Back before heart disease and dementia rendered her helpless and confused.

Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

Back then, my mother would put me to work alongside her at the kitchen counter. Under her artistic direction, I baked cookies, rolled appetizers, and speared tiny cornichons with cellophane-ruffled toothpicks.  Together we dusted and rearranged all the living room furniture. Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

It didn’t matter if the visiting folks were my grandparents or my father’s coworkers; Mom and I channeled Betty Crocker, Julia Child or Martha Stewart.  If the holiday guests were also spending the night (or more), Mom would throw the schedule into overdrive and put me on laundry duty. Cranking up the washing machine, she’d order me to gather every towel and washrag in the linen closet that “needed freshening up.” Yes, even the clean ones.

I’ll admit there were moments when I felt like Cinderella in her scullery maid phase. Even so, those domestic chores trumpeted the arrival of the holiday season. And now, they’re an inextricable part of the memories and traditions my mother crafted for our family — even when the world was crumbling around us.

In December of 1992, five months after my father’s sudden death from a heart attack, I didn’t want to think about Christmas. The very idea of hanging mistletoe, or clearing the dining room table for a “festive” meal, seemed like a violation of our family’s raw grief.  It was my mother who convinced me otherwise, reminding me that Dad loved Christmas — and that he would have wanted us to celebrate for the sake of my little boy, who was barely seven at the time.

I believe, in retrospect, that sprucing things up for the holidays that year kept my mother from feeling totally engulfed by her loss. Cleaning, decorating, and cooking helped fill the unspeakable void while she made Christmas for the rest of us. Over the past five years, dementia has devoured that resourceful mother of mine, but only in recent months have I found the courage, and the words, to admit how much I miss the nurturing that only a mother can give.

And I know, now, that all the ridiculous furniture polishing and towel washing — my flurry of domestic fuss last week — was a way of mothering myself. Following Mom’s old example, I was cleaning for comfort and trying to recreate a lost sense of order. A memory of holidays long past.  – Cindy La Ferle  

–Original collage detail above: “Gathering In,” by Cindy La Ferle–