Without question, many women—my mother included—fell into their wife/mother/housekeeper role automatically. How could they help it? There were all those black-and-white television images of Lucy Ricardo in housedress, her red locks tied up in a scarf, waltzing through the living room humming while she dusted and vacuumed their cozy apartment. Then there was June Cleaver offering her boys, Beaver and Wally, a plate of homemade cookies she’d whipped up while in high heels, a string of pearls, and a full-skirted dress. Shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver imprinted the women and young girls of the 1950s with the ideal “Woman of America” image. Tiny Tears dolls, playhouses, buggies, and tea sets encouraged little girls to be “just like Mommy,” the busy little homemaker.
My mother, like many wives of the time, embraced her household jobs with vigor and pride. Every Friday she “shoveled out the camp.” She tackled the kitchen sink stains with Hilex and scouring powder. Then scrubbed the worn linoleum floor on her hands and knees with Spic and Span. After curling the dust cloth along the buffet and tabletops, she pushed the heavy Kirby vacuum across the worn area rugs that covered the dining room and living room floors. Meticulously, she wiped down Venetian blinds, polished the dining room light, and sterilized the bathroom from floor to ceiling.
Proud of her sparkling house, she lit a Lucky Strike, eased into her favorite chair, and dialed her sister’s number on the sturdy black telephone on the buffet—her reward for a job well done. When my brother and I arrived home from school and my father from his machinist’s job, we wandered across the clean floor seldom noticing the shine or the fresh aroma.
As the years passed, my mother’s “joy of cleaning” began to wane. With all of the kids grown and out of the house except one, little by little she let the dust accumulate on the knickknacks. Crumbs on the floor didn’t seem to matter all that much, and dust bunnies snuggling in corners under the beds went unnoticed. She seemed to have turned her scrub bucket in for a set of acrylic paints, a secondhand pair of red leather tap shoes, and the unfinished embroidery work she had enjoyed years ago—passions of her past that had somehow slipped away.
Growing up on an isolated farm in northern Minnesota, my mother and her four sisters had spent endless winter nights gathered around the kitchen table, practicing their embroidery work under the glow of a kerosene lamp. Later, while dating my father and into the first year of their marriage, my parents enjoyed dancing, horseback riding, woodcarving, and painting. With my brother’s birth in 1945 and mine in 1947, my mother said good-bye to her English riding boots, but still continued to dabble in her painting and embroidery.
Shortly after my fourth birthday, my mother enrolled me in a tap and ballet class at the local park. Inspired by a variety of free adult lessons also offered, she signed herself up for a figurine painting class and an adult tap dancing group. She spent afternoons painting plaster of Paris statues with Kate Smith singing on the radio. In the evening, while my dad worked a double shift, she rolled back the dining room area rug, tied up her red tap shoes, and practiced her “double-ball changes” over and over again.
When my younger brother arrived in 1955 and my sister in 1957, my mother had little time or energy for painting, much less practicing her tap dancing on the hardwood floor. When the two youngest were finally in high school, my mother registered for an evening adult education rosemaling class. Her love of painting soared. The rolltop desk covered with her decorative folk art painting took first place at the Minnesota State Fair!
Now, I’m a meticulous housekeeper myself. My mom’s lower priority for housecleaning, later in her life, concerned me. I worried that she was depressed or in a midlife crisis.
Not the case. As my mother rediscovered her creative spirit I noticed that she had more energy and a greater enjoyment of life. Revisiting these early passions brought her joy way beyond the satisfactions of a clean house.
Guess what? I think I’ve become my mother. Since receiving my Medicare card, I’ve discovered that housecleaning isn’t all that important to me either. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my 37 years of teaching and having a spotless house. Yet through all those years, I felt a calling to follow my writing passion. Now that I’ve been given the gift of retirement I surround myself with pencils, pens, notebooks, and my laptop. Spilling my thoughts across the computer screen exhilarates me. I now understand how much my mother enjoyed spending her days stroking color across those wooden pieces. It’s never too late to ignite your long-lost passions. So let that dust settle, pour another cup of coffee, prop up your feet, and bury yourself in a good book or whatever your heart enjoys. You deserve it!