Every time I travel or go grocery shopping, I am inexorably drawn to Real Simple. Those glossy minimalist pages, the assurance that they know which garlic press or espresso maker is the finest, the step-by-steps for cleaning and organizing. I never buy any of the stuff they feature, or do any of the projects, or change my cleaning (non)routine a bit. Well, OK, once I took their tip, which showed up in two issues in a row, to use a binder clip to store my kitchen sponge so it dried on both sides, thereby reducing my chances of Ebola or whatever. It turned out that the binder clip rusted onto the sink’s counter-thingie, leaving a stain that no amount of scrubbing will remove. But my usual course of action is to immerse myself in the magazine, on the theory that reading about, say, maximizing the space in your medicine cabinet is akin to actually doing it.
This is my mother’s legacy. So many of my childhood friends had stay-at-home mothers who baked those beautiful snacks, whose counters gleamed and countenances beamed when I came over to play. I did not. I had a single mom who, as we now say, worked outside the home, as a college professor. And of course in it too, as a nanny, nurse, teacher’s aide, cook, tailor, loose-tooth puller, and so on. She was tired all the time. We ate from the crockpot, things that had simmered for 8 hours and became an indistinct mess. We had not one single thing in our house that was merely decorative, until in a fit at age 9 I made a swan-shaped pottery ashtray (nobody smoked in our house, and it had a bent neck, but it’s the thought that counts). And did I mention we were broke? Constantly, terminally broke. So we did not buy any special containers for our Q-Tips or tie pretty ribbons around our cloth napkins. Our dining room curtains caught fire and we just left them like that. The dishwasher pooped out and became counter space. My exhausted mother couldn’t do much housework, and I could often be found weeping with frustration as I scrubbed the filthy tile grout with a toothbrush and bleach. I dreamed of edged lawns, shining chrome bathroom fixtures, fresh-squeezed orange juice, a doorbell that chimed in hushed tones.
But it isn’t that I love Real Simple just because my mother let me down in that particular way. It’s because of what we shared, together. Once a month, every month, my mother would return from the grocery store with the latest copies of Woman’s Day and Family Circle. These were the Real Simples of the 1970s, the kind of magazines that feminists had contempt for because month after month they churned out the same articles: “Casseroles your family won’t be able to resist!” “Easy ways to fold your linens!” “Funny stories from the PTA!” We sat together side-by-side, each with one magazine, and pored through them with religious solemnity, marking particularly appealing recipes or projects. Then we traded. The absurdity of this is not lost on me today – my mother, the first female editor of her college newspaper in the 1950s, a woman who got her Ph.D. at MIT in political science in 1967, a straight butch who openly admitted she only got married to have kids. And me, femme dyke in the making, obsessive writer of poems and short stories, nicknamed Merriam Webster the Dictionary Girl at school. What absorbed us so?
I think it was that in those spaces, those lovely avocado conversation pits or tables adorned by perfectly turned out upside-down cakes, we somehow found one another. She stretched out her slim, manicured hand and took my adorably chubby one, and we twirled in our matching shirtdresses across kitchens gleaming with Mop-N-Glo. I was not a failure who reflected her inability to teach me how to use eyeshadow, and she was not a failure as per my ingratitude and contempt. We were not awkward inhabitants of our gender any more, and we didn’t hate each other for our quite different forms of awkwardness. For that hour, that afternoon, there was a world where the dishes sparkled, and the kitchen timer purred, and the family calendar had cute stickers for special days. And we lived in it, Mom and I, and we were, dammit, women.