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.”


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 —      

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 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

My book is on Kindle!

Though I dragged my feet initially, last month I joined the legions of enthusiastic ebook readers — as a reader and a writer.

When my son surprised me with a Kindle for my birthday, I was immediately impressed at how handy and economical it is. Whether I’m sitting in a medical waiting room with my mother or traveling on vacation, I’ve got a mini electronic library that fits in my purse. Best of all, I downloaded Thoreau’s Walden for free, and found that e-reader versions of bestsellers are cheaper than the print editions.

Of course, I had to make my own book, Writing Home, available on Amazon’s Kindle store — complete with a new introduction. A memoir of my earlier motherhood years and a tribute to my family, this book is especially dear to my heart and I’m thrilled to make it available to another set of readers.

If you’d like to add Writing Home to your own electronic library, this link will take you directly to the book’s page on Amazon. (The paperback edition can be ordered there, too.) You can read sample pages from Writing Home as well as several national and local reviews of the book on Amazon.

How about you? Do you use an electronic reader, or do you prefer ink on paper?

Shameless annual pitch

The willingness to share does not make one charitable; it makes one free.  ~Robert Brault

At a holiday book signing last week, I met another author who enjoys all aspects of publishing a book — except for self-promotion. We chatted about the hard realities of keeping our books on store shelves and; about how exhausting it can be to get out there and hustle.

As much as we like to meet our readers, writers tend to be more comfortable recording our thoughts quietly at home. That said, we can’t sell books if we hide behind a desk or a laptop.

So, here’s my shameless annual holiday plug for Writing Home. For every new copy sold between now and January 1st, I will donate $5 to the Welcome Inn, a day shelter serving the homeless in my community from mid December until mid March. The Inn offers case management services, a cereal breakfast, hot lunch, showers, laundry, online computers, clothing, and a variety of other services. With southeast Michigan’s economy at an all-time low, things are even tougher for people without homes and jobs, not to mention organizations like the Welcome Inn.

I’ve been donating my Writing Home profits every holiday season because “home” has always topped my gratitude list — and I want to give back to my community. I’ve been blessed, all my life, to live in wonderful homes with an incredibly supportive family, surrounded by caring neighbors. Which is, pretty much, what the stories in Writing Home are all about.

If you’re looking for something under $20 for the reader on your gift list, please consider visiting and buying a new copy of my book. (Link provided above.) In Oakland County, stop by the Yellow Door Art Market, where you’ll find my book as well as other gift items made by professional Michigan artists.

From my home to yours, I am wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving — and many blessings to count.

–Holiday photo by Cindy La Ferle-


Trowel and Error

I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.” — John Erskine

My favorite summer pastime is working outside in my garden — a pastime that inevitably leads me back to the keyboard in my home office. The following gardening essay was published in 2009 in At Home in the Garden, an illustrated anthology of garden writings.  

Trowel and Error

After all these years, I still cant muster the nerve to call myself a real gardener. Real gardeners know that a garden is an ecosystem as well as an art form. Real gardeners spend hours studying seed catalogs, and can identify every plant in the nursery by its botanical name. Always victorious in the battle against slugs, real gardeners stay attuned to natures early warning signs and know exactly what to do when leaves turn yellow.

A real gardener I am not — but Im getting there.

Gardening as a metaphor for living is a cliché as old as the Gardens of Versailles. But I just turned fifty this year, and it occurs to me that plotting my lifes course has been as tricky as maintaining the perennial beds I started a few years ago. My garden has provided clues along the way.

A Midwest native, Ive always lived in established neighborhoods with mature trees, so Ive had to seek out plants that will tolerate plenty of shade and depleted soil. Even now, Im still experimenting, still trying to get it right.

Bob and Jane, my elder neighbors across the street, have watched my green experiments from their porch and offered advice. They often catch me watering a newly transplanted hosta or puttering around the herb beds in my pajamas on sunny mornings. Returning from vacation one summer, they brought me a ceramic garden marker that reads, “Gardens grow by trowel and error,” which pretty much sums it up.

In my early years of home ownership, I followed a much safer path.

Back then, I planted only what a master gardener would call “amateur annuals.” In my own defense, I was trying to raise a child while working at home. I wrote shorter newspaper articles — never had the nerve to start a novel — and barely had time to fuss with a potted geranium, let alone a crop of needy, exotic perennials.

I was also a house-proud perfectionist, always worried that Id be judged by my foliage and found inferior. Afraid of taking risks, I aimed for an instant gratification garden – a showy but conventional patch that didnt require much care. But now that Im more adventurous and, well, less pot-bound, Im finally reaping the rewards of an unruly perennial garden.

For starters, a struggling peony I planted three years ago produced several crimson flowers for the first time this spring. The blooms are gone, but Im still gloating.

By nature Im not a patient person. I hate waiting in line and sometimes Im too fidgety to meditate. But my stalled peony bush taught me a crucial life lesson: There are times when the best plan of action is to wait and see what happens. Seeds germinate and flower on their own schedule, and natural processes can’t be rushed. (Like that novel I want to start.)

Last year, in fact, I had almost given up on the poor peony and was ready to move it, which would have been a big mistake. Like me, it was just a late bloomer that needed a little more time, and faith, to take root.

For a day or so, I was tempted to cut those gorgeous peony blooms and bring them indoors to enjoy in a crystal vase. But since Im still a show-off, I left them outside for all the neighbors to admire.


–Essay and photos by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. “Trowel and Error” is also reprinted in Writing Home, a collection of personal essays on home and family. —