Disgusting Four-Letter Words

Mary Lou Edwards

My friend, Domenica, maintained that after a woman got married, if she kept a clean house and didn’t get fat, she could be an axe murderer and no one would care. Men reserved a particular scorn for wives who did not keep a house spic and span or who, God forbid, “let themselves go,” but I feared the scorn of men far less than I feared household drudgery which I suspected caused brain damage. Polish furniture that was already shining? Scrub floors that weren’t even scuffed? Launder clean curtains just because it was Monday? I don’t think so.

I considered housework a form of domestic violence and C-O-O-K, I-R-O-N, and D-U-S-T offensive four-letter words. My aversion was not genetic. My mother’s housekeeping made Polish cleaning women look like slackers and she was a world-class cook on top of it. ‘Til today I rarely eat in an Italian restaurant since no dish ever comes even kind of close to hers.

I could claim I was intimidated by her extraordinary culinary skills, but I’d be lying. The truth was preparing, cooking, cleaning up three times a day, for a family that considered memorable meals an inalienable birthright, was just not part of my plan. I was not going to be trapped in a kitchen.

It wasn’t as though my mother didn’t try to steer me toward domesticity.

“Mary Lou,” she’d say as she stirred at the stove, “come watch how I do this.”

“I’ll know how you did it when I eat it, Ma,” I’d respond, trying to dodge the bullet.

“No, you need to see how I make it. Someday you’ll be sorry you didn’t learn how to do this.”

“Ma, I told you I’m going to college. I don’t need to know how to cook.”

“Don’t be stupid. College people eat. What are you going to do when you get married?”

“I probably won’t get married and, if I do, I’ll find a man who’s not that into food. Or I’ll marry someone who likes to eat out,” I said, thinking of solutions on the spot. “Then again,” I mused, “maybe we’ll just eat at your house every night or my husband will cook like daddy.”

“Cook like your father?” she responded, her eyebrows leaping to the ceiling.

“I saw daddy make eggs for breakfast once.”

“It was probably when Nonna was dying and I was sitting vigil at the hospital.”

“Well, it was the only time I ever saw him cook, but you never know. Look at Bo.”

My father’s friend, Bo, made the best sopresatta in the world. To this day, not here or in Italy, have I ever found anything that could compare. Just the thought of walking past his house and spying the mini-salamis hanging by their strings air-drying in his attic makes me yearn for giardiniera with fresh Italian bread.

“I could marry a chef. Ma, did you know women can’t be chefs?” I said, trying to take the spotlight off my recalcitrance. “I read that all of the world’s great chefs are men.”

“Sure,” my mother agreed, “when it’s a man cooking they call him a chef and pay him big money. Mothers, who make great food every day, are just plain old cooks.”

“But, Mom,” I teased, pecking her on the cheek, “you get paid in love.”

“I know. I know. I’m a lucky woman,” she smiled. “I always wanted to be a wife and mother. I’m not complaining.”

You should complain I thought. If I were you, I’d be complaining big-time. What is so rewarding about having 'floors you could eat off of' or shining kitchen tile every week with Jubilee?
Perhaps none of this appealed to me because I was a disaster at it. Even when I tried, I got it all wrong.

Once I attempted to help my mother with the ironing, but I had no sooner dug into the bushel basket when she yanked the iron cord from its socket.

“Your father would never wear such wrinkly underwear plus you scorched a pillowcase. You’re impossible,” she railed, as she collapsed the ironing board with a thud almost amputating my fingers. If I’d known that a burned pillowcase would be my ticket to freedom, I’d have scorched from the get-go.

Mama was right though--I was impossibly incompetent. I couldn’t even hang laundry right. I let the sheets drag on the grass because I forgot to use the pole to prop up the clothesline. I hung the socks by the ankle instead of the toes. I mixed articles of clothing instead of grouping them. And my towel hanging was a complete disgrace.

“Look at how you hang towels,” she said with disgust. “You’re using two clothespins for every towel and wasting clothesline between them.”

“Ma, you make it sound like there’s a clothespin shortage.” And I wanted to add, you have enough clothesline for the entire family to hang themselves, but I knew when I was walking on thin ice so I kept my mouth shut.

“Keep it up, Mary Lou, and you’re going to be in real trouble. Try following directions, for a change. Put one towel on the line and put a clothespin in the left corner,” she demonstrated, “then instead of wasting another clothespin, take the second towel and lap it over the first a tiny bit and use another clothespin to hold the two together, then add another towel and do the same thing and keep going until you’ve hung all the towels together. For every two towels you should only use three clothespins. I’ll watch you finish this row.”

“Ma, you have got to be kidding? This is moronic,” I argued, “I can't believe you expect me to do this. Let's just throw on a few extra clothespins and really live it up.”

“Capo tosto! You're such a hardhead, you never listen,” she scolded. “You think everything’s a joke. You’re hanging things willy-nilly. Put all the handkerchiefs together, all the dishtowels together.” Lowering her voice to a stage whisper, she added, “And hang the underpants on the inside clothesline where the whole world can’t see them.”

“Mother,” I protested, “I think the neighbors know we wear underpants and brassieres. I mean, what’s the big secret?”

“Shame on you--panties are private, hide them on the inside. Put the sheets and towels on the outside lines so the sun can get at them, and quit being a smart-aleck.”

I hated the tasks I was given, and I was always deemed too young for the jobs I coveted.

I yearned to sit on the windowsill, my legs dangling in the house, my torso outside, my face reflected in the glass, and pull the window sash down on my lap to squeegee. Jenny Next Door used to sit almost totally outside (because she had a long torso and stubby legs) on her third floor sill holding onto the frame with one hand, squirting her vinegar spray bottle with the other while her long black hair blew in the breeze. Gawking from my backporch, letting my Popsicle drip on my pedalpushers, I was amazed at her courage, mesmerized by her dexterity. Once, and I am not kidding, she even stood up outside on the window sill to reach the upper sash, one hand holding on, the other swiping the rag back and forth over the glass, and all the while yelling at her sons down in the yard who were chasing each other with a hammer. It was like watching a tightrope walker cross the Grand Canyon. I was in awe.

“Ma,” I begged, “please, if you let me wash windows sitting half outside like Jenny Next Door, I promise I’ll make them sparkle.”

“No,” she said, “you have to be at least fourteen to do that. The last thing I need is to find your body crumpled in the gangway. People would never stop talking and you’d probably leave the windows streaky.”

“We live on the first floor, for crying out loud," I whined. "I'll pull the window down tight on my thighs. You just don't want me to have any fun."

“Knowing you, Sarah Bernhardt, you’ll fall out the window and crack your skull just to get attention, and I’ll get stuck sitting with you in the hospital. You can run around on window ledges all you want after you’re married and your husband has to worry about you."

I think she knew, before I knew, that my ineptitude was a subversive form of passive resistance. Somewhere deep inside my little noggin I must have realized that if I excelled at domesticity, I’d be signing my own death warrant. My mother, however, attributed my aversion to a “...combination of laziness and reading too many damn books.” She refused to accept that I was beyond domestication.

One of her last ditch efforts was registering me for eight weeks of sewing lessons at the Salvation Army Settlement House (commonly known as "The Sal" where mostly non-Catholic urchins ran amok) but my mother was desperate. Perhaps she thought she’d appeal to my creative side but, alas, I continually jammed the sewing machine while trying to fashion her Mother’s Day gift of a tea apron. I assured the teacher my mom did not need a tea apron because she only drank coffee, but Mrs. Muscolino snarled, “You are making a tea apron and your mother will love it!” In the eleventh hour, when I burned out the pedal on the ancient sewing machine, Mrs. M took pity and gave me a needle and thread, but I had no luck with that either so I opted to staple on the waist ties. I considered glue, but I figured staples would hold up better knowing my mother’s propensity for obsessive laundering.

My teacher checked over the finished product. “What exactly do you think your mother is going to be putting in this pocket? It’s huge--almost as big as the apron. And the waist ties? They’re supposed to be equal in length.” Whipping off her measuring tape from around her neck, she said, “One of the ties is four inches, the-other-is-fourteen. Unless your mother has the waist of a wasp, this will never fit her.”

“Well, if the ties are too short she can give it to the lady upstairs. Her baby could use it as a bib,” I suggested, vowing never to sew another blessed thing as long as I lived.

On Mother’s Day, after we gobbled up the delicious frittata my mother cooked for the special occasion, my brother, sister and I brought out our presents.

She opened my brother’s first.

He gave her a breathtaking Our Lady of Fatima statue. Our Lady was standing on a blue plastic ball which my brother said was the world. I could see how he thought that, because it was round like the Earth, but it was all blue and everyone knew the Earth was only two-thirds water.

“I don’t think it’s the Earth, there’s no land,” I snapped, jealous that my mother was acting like he gave her a relic from the Vatican. Shooting me a dirty look and completely ignoring my input, my brother played his trump card.

“Ma, twist the globe—it opens.” Sure enough, she twisted and this huge black rosary fell out of the Earth. “Anthony,” she exclaimed, “I will treasure this forever.” He stood there beaming like an altar boy who gets to lead the casket out of the church after a funeral. I felt like snapping Our Lady off her perch, but I was not going to commit a Mortal Sin and risk going to Hell because of my brother. It was always obvious my mother adored him just because he was her first-born and only son. As far as she was concerned he could do no wrong, and she rarely punished him for anything. Once I saw him actually walk into our kitchen with his muddy baseball spikes on, and she barely yelled at him. The truth was if he had given her an elbow macaroni necklace, she’d have been just as over the moon so I pretended I didn’t care, but secretly I had to admit it was a very cool present. The way the Earth twisted open around the equator, and the giant rosary beads fell out, was extremely impressive.

My sister gave mom a floral handkerchief on which she’d embroidered MOTHER. I didn’t think it was a big deal but my mother said, “Oh, Anna, this is just what I needed. How did you know?” as though she didn’t have an entire drawer full of cleaned and pressed hankies.

“Open mine, open mine, Ma, I sewed it just for you at the Sal,” I said, thinking perhaps I should have evened out the waist ties before I wrapped it. My mother opened the box and pulled out the apron from the tissue paper. “Ohhhhh, isn’t this an interesting apron,” she said, as though I’d given her a stupid pencil holder made out of a ridiculous tuna fish can.

My brother, still smarting from the fact that I had pointed out Our Lady of Fatima was not standing on the Earth, interjected, “Apron? It looks like a cockeyed shopping bag, if you ask me. She didn’t even sew it—it’s a bunch of staples.”

“No one asked you, Anthony,” my mother said, shooting him the evil eye. “I’m sure your sister worked very hard on this.”

As my father sat at the kitchen table with a “what the hell is that” look on his face (he was into details like measuring and neatness) my mother looked up from the tea apron and said quietly, “Mary Lou, you must stay on the Honor Roll and do well in school. You will never make it as a housewife.”

After the apron caper, little was asked of me outside of picking up dog crap in our yard, running errands and drying dishes.

I could see I was a huge disappointment to my mother. She was getting very close to the final stage of grief, acceptance. Now I seriously began to beg for God's help with my domestic disability.
"Dear God, please send me a rich husband so we can have a housekeeper. My mother has told You over and over 'God, this girl will never learn to do housework!' and You know she is right. It would be nice if he's handsome, smart and likes to have fun too but, really, the maid thing is the most important. There's no hurry, You know I have to go to college first, but please start looking for him now because everyone says it's going to be impossible to find a husband interested in a wife who only wants to read books all day. If you can't find a rich one for me, at least find one who doesn't care about home-cooked food. I'm willing to do a little dusting and vacuuming plus I'll be happy to work as a nurse or a teacher. Please bless my family and friends and our dog Skipper. Thank You for listening. AMEN."
I said that prayer often, and it worked, sort of. God sent me a husband with all my requirements, except he was not rich, but, here is where I knew God was really on the job, my mother-in-law had been such a horrible cook my husband thought Cheerios with a banana was a gourmet dinner. If I so much as made toast, which I didn’t do often, he was grateful. Thanks to peanut butter and jelly, lunchmeat, cereal and carry-out, we did just fine. Occasionally I went all out and cooked, but I always seemed to miss the mark.

In a fit of madness one day, I decided to make fried smelts for supper. I have no idea what possessed me, but it sounded easy enough when I overheard someone say you just put oil in a frying pan and throw in the smelts. Had I done this and stayed in the kitchen, we might have actually had a home-cooked meal. Instead, someone called needing a phone number which I went upstairs to retrieve. As I stood on the landing returning to the kitchen, phone number in hand, black smoke billowed up the stairwell. Taking a deep breath, I flew down the stairs and out the front door, sooty and shaking.
Standing across the street from my house, I saw the smoke pouring out the front door,and I just knew my husband was going to be furious. Several months earlier, he had been really aggravated when the microwave door blew off while I was sterilizing my contact lenses, and that little caper had only involved replacing the microwave and patching a hole in the wall. I was sure he’d be over the top if the house burned down. Fortunately a neighbor called the Fire Department and the hook and ladder arrived minutes before my husband pulled up and jumped out of his car leaving it in the middle of the street.

At least a dozen firemen charged through the front door, giant boots flapping, pick-axes at the ready, smashing out windows.

“What happened? Where’s my wife?” my husband shouted as I came charging across the street to explain.

“Are you OK? What happened?” he hollered amidst the chaos. “Did something explode? Were you smoking? What’s going on?” he asked as the flames waved hello out the kitchen window.

Just then the fire chief, in a huge rubber raincoat with Chicago Fire Department emblazoned on the back, walked toward us.

“Don’t worry, sir. We’ve got this under control,” he reassured my husband. “It’s a run-of-the-mill kitchen fire—lot of smoke, not too much damage. We knocked out some windows and the cabinets are shot, but it looks worse than it is.” Turning to me, he said, “And you, little woman, better be more careful when you’re cooking dinner.”

“Cooking dinner?” my husband choked out, his eyes the size of bowling balls. “You were cooking? In the kitchen? At the stove?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was frying smelts.”

“Frying smelts? Like fish smelts?”

“Yes, I wanted to surprise you by frying smelts.”

“What in God’s name were you thinking? Smelts? We've never had smelts. I cannot believe that you were trying to cook smelts?”

I was getting a bit annoyed with his shock and disbelief, acting like I’d never stepped foot in the kitchen. Was he forgetting I had almost savant-like talents for making chicken wings? Was he blocking on the fact that one Thanksgiving I cooked a turkey which wreaked havoc with everyone's digestive tract? It was not as though I never cooked.

“I wanted to surprise you by frying smelts,” I sniveled. “They’re not that hard to make.”

“Not that hard? You’ve practically burned down the freakin’ house. Whatever possessed you?”

“I don’t know,” I said shrugging, “all of a sudden I felt like cooking. Is that such a sin?” I wanted to add “you ungrateful bastard” but the neighbors were crowding around, jumping over the fire hoses ostensibly to comfort us, but really to be nosy. “I can’t explain what came over me."

A year prior when we were having the kitchen redone, the remodeler was peppering me with questions. “So what kind of fridge do you want? Side by side, freezer at the top, ice-maker on the door? Cold water dispenser? Twenty-four cubic feet?”

“Look,” I had told him, “I just want a plain old refrigerator. I’m not really into kitchens. If I had my way, we’d turn this room into a den, but my husband says that would hurt the resale value.”
“Yeah,” he had said, “most buyers are lookin' for a kitchen."

So we put in the new kitchen, and now it was in shambles.

“Promise me, look into my eyes and promise me you’ll never do this again,” my husband pleaded as the firemen gave the all-clear sign. “You could have been incinerated.”

“OK, alright, I promise,” I assured him. “If the smelts had turned out, I was going to bake you a birthday cake next week but now I won’t even bother.”

“Good. That’s why God invented bakeries."

About six months later, in another fit of impulsive recklessness, I decided to make an egg.

“Honey,” I yelled, “have you seen my frying pan? I’ve searched everywhere.”

With a look of alarm, he walked into the kitchen. “Yes, I did see the frying pan. Do you remember when you set the house on fire frying smelts?”

His tone of voice suggested I was some kind of demented pyromaniac.

“Well, during the blaze,” he continued in a Mr. Roger’s voice, “the firemen threw the skillet out the window. When the snow melted in the Spring, I found the pan and threw it in the garbage. Is this the first time you’ve noticed it’s gone?”

Apparently he’d forgotten he made me promise not to cook so I ignored his snide remark.

“Thanks a lot," I snipped, highly insulted. "You at least could have told me it was trashed. That was a very expensive frying pan I got for my shower and I hardly used it. Now I have to go to the hardware store and buy another one. How am I supposed to make an egg with no pan?"

“You're not supposed to--grab your coat," he said. "We’re going out for breakfast.”

Mama, reading those damn books paid off after all.

MLSE 05/09


Millie said...

Hi Mary Lou:
I loved reading this. I sent a comment but it must not have gone through. What is Sopresatta? What is Frittaia. I loved your smelt story and the clothes pin story. I loved the whole thing. Thanks for sharing you made my day.Millie I will read more tomorrow.

Camille said...

What a wonderful"slice" into your life. I started out with a chuckle, onto LOL and ended up convulsing in hilarity! Such rich detail ...you have strong voice. I related to much..especially the hanging of underwear "in the middle" and judicious use of clothespins...OMG...were our moms childhood friends? Love your writing...keep it coming! Camille