What I’ve Learned From the Women Who Kept Home Before Me

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Shifrah Combiths)

As I read the introductory chapters of Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts, in which she describes the homekeeping styles of her English grandmother in contrast to that of her Italian grandmother, I began to think about how much the way I do things in my own home is part of the heritage passed down to me by the women in my family. I saw that my methods of homekeeping are more cultural than I realized and in a context of passed down, inter-generational wisdom.

Spending time in the homes of my grandmother, great-aunt, aunt, and of course, my mother taught me how to take care of my home and my things, not only from what they explicitly taught me but, perhaps even more so, through what I observed.

Air out the bed. I was taught to make my bed every morning — but after it aired out. I do it to this day (and, I admit, sometimes never get back to actually finishing the job).

Open the windows. When I think of my mother, I think of her pulling up shades and opening the windows first thing in the morning. I can’t open the windows for most of the year because I live in Florida, but when winter (or should I say “winter”?) comes, I throw them open just like my mom does and relish the fresh air. Especially in the bedroom where the bed is airing out.

Teach children how to take care of things. All those admonitions from my very loving grandparents to “not put my hands on the wall”? I get it now. And it comes out of my own mouth to my own kids (whose greasy little hand prints, that I know will be gone one day, I still wipe from the walls with a Magic Eraser). No wet towels on wood or furniture of any kind was also drilled into us from a young age. In general, we were taught to respect furniture, and I teach my children the same.

Have an open home. My mother’s home was the house where all our friends hung out. She’d have large groups of us over often. We all have memories of watching Anne of Green Gables while holding pillows with tears running down our cheeks as Gilbert lay on his sick bed. Being the hang out house didn’t start with my mother’s generation; she was carrying on a tradition she enjoyed in her own home with her parents, who regularly entertained their children’s friends in their home. My grandparents even had our friends over for swimming, burgers, and pie on many Sunday afternoons. My family taught me that the children we care for aren’t just our own but all those whom we welcome into our home — a home with open doors, hearts, and refrigerators. I hope to pass on this encompassing love with my own children and their friends in my home.

“My family taught me that the children we care for aren’t just our own but all those whom we welcome into our home — a home with open doors, hearts, and refrigerators.”

Scrub the sink every night after washing the dishes. I thought this was a normal thing that everyone did until I was washing dishes in someone’s house in college and she was floored at “how thoroughly” I did the job. She told me my mother taught me well. Yes, she did. Thanks, Mom.

One person cooks, the other does dishes. I grew up watching my grandfather doing the cleaning up after my grandmother cooked. Lucky for me, my husband observed this same pattern in his own family and we fell into this pretty regular routine without ever discussing it.

You can decorate with anything. Although my mother spent part of her childhood in a pretty opulently decorated home, she herself never had those kinds of things. But she has made a lovely home wherever she’s been with what she does have. I learned from her how far order, cleanliness, light, and air go in making a house homey and pleasant. Even when she lived in student housing in Jerusalem with no money, she managed to decorate, even if it was with a few pretty mugs and carefully hung pot holders.

“Many hands make light work.” We grew up experiencing that when something needs to be done, you pitch in. I express this to my own family as, “We’re a family. We help each other.”

Only touch it once. My mom taught us to deal with things when they were in our hands rather than putting them down to put away later. This simple practice drastically cuts down on clutter build-up, especially on counters and desks.

Decorate with plants. From the cascading pothos hanging from my grandparents’ kitchen ceiling to the five-foot umbrella plant that I made contour drawings of for art class, plants in my family’s homes have always made a statement. I wouldn’t think of having a home without touches of living greenery.

(Image credit: Shifrah Combiths)

Always wipe the table. My mother was a stickler for leaving surfaces clean and now I’m the person that gets frustrated when I put a paper down on the dining table and it gets sticky.

“A place for everything and everything in its place.” The level of detail by which my relatives practiced this was impressive. One look in my mother’s purse shows that this is something she lives by. While my own purse is drastically simple in comparison (Mom carries around “everything but…” while I carry only the bare necessities), I organize things in my home with a good deal of thought about where everything should go and I know that actually putting things back where they go (while they are in my hand!) is paramount to a tidy home.

Viewing the ordinary tasks of homekeeping as cultural variations passed down through (primarily) the women in the family has placed my homekeeping duties — of which, for the record, my husband does a good portion — in a historical context, and has given me a scope larger than the dirty floor at my feet.