From the time I could see over the ironing board until I graduated from high school, I lived in a cloud of spray starch. I grew up with six sisters and three brothers -- before permanent press -- and my mother believed that anything you put on your body, slept on or even blew your nose in needed to be caressed with an iron. Mom had her priorities, you see. I've tried hard to break away from this rigid conditioning, but I'm having a little trouble pulling the plug -- in thought, if not in deed.
I can still picture the journey our family's clothes endured before reaching the ironing board. After their departure from the hamper, they were sorted and soaked before traveling through the washing machine and wringer. Next stop was the laundry basket for a ride out to the clothesline. Then came shaking, hanging up and a brief rest for drying. Once taken down, each piece was folded and piled into the basket for a return trip. The journey ended -- or began again -- with spraying, ironing and refolding. No wonder our clothes wore out so fast.
Today, the route my family's clothes take is short. They go from washer to dryer to laundry table, where they lie in a heap for up to 24 hours. The advantage of this method is that folding and putting away are eliminated since everyone grabs what he or she needs. The disadvantage is guilt. I'm making progress, though. I avoid looking into the laundry room, and I've weaned myself from ironing twice a week to once every two weeks. Someday I hope to throw away the iron.
I'd like to throw away other things too -- like my mother's theory that spring and fall began with cleaning marathons. Fall meant piles of leaves and piles of cleaning supplies. To Mother, scrubbing walls and ceilings qualified one for sainthood. The last time I did an obligatory spring-cleaning was in 1981, and I haven't missed the experience. But I still deal with the guilt.
I'm not alone. Guilt is strong in daughters of traditional mothers -- when the daughters choose a different path.
And my path is different; it takes me to the office five days a week. That leaves very little time for my mother's No. 2 priority: cooking. When I was growing up, Sunday dinners were taken at a table that could have been featured in a family-living magazine. Each repast included a roast, gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls and dessert. Mother spent her Saturdays making pumpkin and cherry pies so that we could have our choice of desserts on Sunday.
I can think of any number of better ways to spend my Saturdays. Pie-baking is not even an option on my list.
Options to me include spending time with my family, instead of cooking for them. And my children are aware of where I rank kitchen work. Usually they accept my stance, but on occasion they send me on a guilt trip with the comment, "Didn't you ever watch 'Leave It to Beaver?' His mother would always give him cookies and milk when he came home from school."
So it's not only my mother I have to contend with. Society has a whole set of priorities that are constantly thrust at us through the media. And even though shows like "Leave It to Beaver" are no longer being produced, the reruns haunt us. We still have to endure Mrs. Cleaver -- in her dress, apron and jewelry -- smiling as she dusts the chandelier.
Although I can turn off the television, images of Mrs. Cleaver remain. And my mother's priorities have lived with me for so long, I'm not sure what it would take to erase them. I especially remember the times when my teen-age friends went downtown after school to have fun, and I had to stay home -- an iron and a dust cloth as my companions. And even today, when I do what's important to me -- sit down with a magazine, for example -- I feel guilty.
But I still read. I'm searching for articles with answers to these questions: Are cobwebs fatal? Are children raised in homes that are spring-cleaned really more emotionally secure? Are dessertless meals a factor in the increasing number of runaway teen-agers? Do sheets that are laundered every other week tend to cause learning disabilities in the kids who sleep on them?
And speaking of sheets, the last time one of my sisters visited, she helped me make my bed. "Mom would be so disappointed," she said. "Not only are your sheets wrinkled, but they need mending."
I wondered what my sister's comments were going to be on Sunday, after our noon meal of hamburgers and potato chips.
Linda Essig, a free-lance writer, lives amid clutter and cobwebs in Spring Valley, Minn. Reprinted with permission of author; from October's Working Mother magazine