The empty house echoes as I work. Here in my parents’ postwar version of the American Dream, women’s voices come back to me. Women who worked at home and
in factories, raised me, my sister and my cousins, read McCall’s and Good
Housekeeping, and always had a fresh cake or a plate of cookies ready for whoever might
drop in. They are the kind of woman you can count on, the ones who show up
unannounced before you even think of asking.
Ceil is short and bouncing with energy, her face sprinkled with light brown freckles, her sandy hair cut short as if any other style would take too much time. She married my Uncle Edwin in Amsterdam, New York soon after World War II and poured her energy into her home and family. Ceil loved to sew and made beautiful smocked dresses for their daughter, Peggy, who now lives in Florida. She loved to dress up and go ballroom dancing with Uncle Ed at the Century Club, a white pillared building on Guy Park Avenue, the grandest street in town.
One of five sisters, Ceil is often on the phone. I would not be surprised if she was the first person who signed up for “call waiting.”
“Just a minute,” she says when I phone her, “My sister is on the other line.” True to her word, she is back with me in a minute or less because her sisters all live in the same town and she talks to at least one of them every day, but I am calling “long distance.”
I remember her most at my parents’ kitchen table, sitting before a creamy cup of coffee, her bright red lipstick print on the rim, a smoldering cigarette in a glass ashtray. She was the very picture of sophistication, frequently dropping the names of women’s and children’s stores–Gabay’s, Holzheimer and Shaul, the Chatterbox–as if she went there every day.
One afternoon when I was in high school, we ran into each other at Woolworth’s. She bought me a Coke at the counter and asked about my life as if it was important. Like most girls, I needed that kind of validation. As I matured, I pushed back against my mother’s example, but my aunts were a step apart. They carried no judgment or emotional baggage and I knew I could count on them to be my personal cheerleaders.
Ceil worked in retail herself now and then, at a fabric store and a card-and-gift shop but her real talent was homemaking. I treasure her handwritten recipes for banana bread, stuffed cabbage, and potato chip cookies. I may never use them, but they are sweet reminders of the long, slow days when women baked from scratch.
When I was growing up in the Fifties, a great deal of time and effort went into so-called women’s work, but as a young woman in the Seventies, I believed that time would have been better spent on careers outside the home. My mother and her friends worked in factories, and felt lucky simply to have jobs and to own their homes, but we, their daughters came of age during feminism’s Second Wave. We had more opportunities than our mothers ever dreamed of.
Still, we lost something when we denigrated the skills of homemakers. Hillary Clinton famously stated during her husband’s Presidential campaign, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” and her words became code for “strong women don’t bake,” though she never intended it that way. I’m sure she meant women should have many choices: homemaking, careers or both. But some of us, myself included, didn’t want to talk about cookies at all. On the way to equal rights, we stepped right over the enjoyable parts of creating a comfortable home.
Years after I baked a few cookies myself, I read an essay by Gloria Steinem. After many years working for women’s rights, she noticed that her home had no personal touches. Her apartment was more like an office, filled with papers and books, basic furniture, and nothing personal.
My Aunt Ceil never had that problem. Her home is full of knickknacks from her daughter’s travels. She herself has been to Europe and up and down the East Coast and filled her home with found treasures. A sparkling glass bluebird perches on a windowsill. Hummel figurines are on display in a dust-free glass cabinet and beribboned blue towels invite my touch in the small bathroom.
My other aunt, Willette, married Edwin’s brother John. Descended from Irish immigrants, she taught herself to with my grandfather a Merry Christmas in Polish. Her once brown hair is pure white and her face opens in a wide smile. One afternoon, she gave me a ride home from high school. Feeling sick, I walked to her house, knowing she, like many women, would be home in the middle of the day. As she drove, she asked me about the upcoming prom and graduation, and like Ceil, made me feel she was really listening.
Willette and John raised two sons who are now grown but still live with their families nearby. She worked for a while as a telephone operator and became the link between Mom’s sister in California and the rest of the family in New York State.
“Willette gets free long distance,” my mother said, explaining why she never called her sister. Even when rates fell to a nickel a minute, our family still counted on Willette to relay news from the West Coast.
One weekday afternoon when I was small, my mother and I dropped in on her, as people did back then, and found her praying the rosary. Mom apologized. “You’ll have to start all over again.”
“Yes, I will,” she answered cheerfully. Then she went to the kitchen, put out slices of homemade cake and poured coffee for Mom, a glass of milk for me.
After I married and had children of my own, these impromptu visits were rare. Everyone was busy, it seemed, and lived far away from family. I became what Mom called a “career woman.”
|Ceil Smitka and Willette Smitka|
Now, on this early spring day, the sky is painted periwinkle blue, as only an Adirondack sky can be. Hundreds of tiny green leaves wave like flags on gnarled trees in the backyard of my mother’s house. Inside, I clean out the last of her belongings. My father has been gone a year, and Mom is in a nursing home. Ceil and Willette held a garage sale on the sidewalk in front last week. On this day, I have driven north from my Pennsylvania home with my ten-year-old son to clean out what remains, the things no one will buy. Threadbare bath towels, a plastic clothes hamper, costume jewelry in a dirty pink box. Used dress patterns, spools of thread, dust rags. Two framed Easter cards on the wall.
The empty house echoes as I work. My son’s Game Boy chirps from the living room as I finger the worn remnants of my mother’s hard life. I work alone, Mom’s voice in my ear: “Linda’s the independent one.”
Outside in the driveway, a car engine stops and doors slam. The back doorbell rings and before I can answer it, my mother’s kitchen door swings open. The aunts walk in laughing, arms laden with brown paper bags. On the old Formica table, Ceil and Willette unpack lunchmeat wrapped in white butcher paper, small jars of mayonnaise and mustard, fresh tomatoes, and a package of rolls.
“We knew you were here,” they say, smiling. “You have to eat lunch.”
Linda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in
A former librarian, she teaches memoir workshops and speaks on the healing power of writing. Her credits include the Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Rose & Thorn, Mindprints, and other literary magazines as well as several anthologies. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website is http://www.lindawis.com/. Bucks County PA.