Diane Dettmann

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.

Rosemaling was a later-in-life passion for Diane Dettmann’s mother. One of her rosemaling projects (a painted desk) won first prize at the Minnesota State Fair.

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!

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  • Diane Dettmann November 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Love it Elle Sue! Thanks for the positive feedback. I can tell when I’m not writing, I have a dust rag in my hand and the bathrooms are clean! Enjoyed your website. Maybe we can connect on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for the writing inspiration!

  • elle sue jacobson November 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Excellent article! When people ask me how I find time to publish my blog-turned-website, I answer> “I don’t vacuum & dust!”

  • Diane Dettmann November 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you for the insightful comments. You’re right Tara, this topic DOES go deeper. It would be great to take the conversation deeper! Hope others add their comments.

    Leslie, I’m glad the story triggered memories of your mother. As I wrote the essay, I could feel my mother sitting next to me. Like you, my mother died way too young at the age of 66. I’ve been reading her 40 years of journal writing. Her daily entries make me miss her even more and at the same time help me know her better. Hang onto your mother’s awesome “Golf Wisdom”!

    Roz, I’ve enjoyed so many of your essays and love your humor. Glad you enjoyed my essay. Coming from you, your response is a HUGE compliment.
    Thanks for the motivation!

  • Leslie in Portland, Oregon November 15, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    This essay gave me the great gift of restoring some of my memories of my mother, who died in 1985 at age 64. After completing college and working as an elementary school music teacher, she devoted herself to taking care of her family and her home while my father, a physician, worked 18-hour days and was on call most weekends. Until the family acquired a second car and grew out of its small post-WWI home, my mother was part of a tight community of dynamic female neighbors. In the home she and my father then built in a new neighborhood of expansive homes on huge lots, my naturally-gregarious mother was isolated much of each day by the demands of home and yard. She was a wonderful mother who, I realize now, must have been very lonely when her children were at school. Twenty years later, when her children had left home and her husband showed no inclination to work less, my mother jumped outside house and yard and discovered golf. A lifelong lover of the outdoors who had been a competitive athlete before she married and had children, she reveled in all that golf offered her: a community of women and challenging outdoor physical activity. She enjoyed golf so much that she played right through the wet Western Oregon winters. When, suddenly, she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I asked her what advice she would give me. Although pain kept her from talking very much, she managed to say, “Learn to play golf.” It took me a long time to understand all that was in that statement. I wish she had been given the time to teach me its lesson herself!

  • Roz Warren November 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Enjoyed this essay. LOVED the last two lines.

  • hillsmom November 15, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Someone has said, “A clean house denotes a misspent life…”

  • tara dillard November 15, 2012 at 8:40 am

    This topic goes much deeper.

    Some of those women had ‘Obligation Children’. A validation of their role.

    They didn’t want the children nor really the husband. But it was their ‘role’.

    Many of us grew up with that.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara