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Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Cynthia James

Before seven in the morning, the Miss Sybils were expected to clock in so that the new kind of better dressed and paid servants, like myself, could move off to their office shifts. We new people needing trade-skills like house-help, were not a class unfamiliar with the job ourselves. We had risen in families in which these very professions were bread-and-butter and foundation skills.

But trades-work was hard work, and there was a lot of humiliation associated with it. Parents were insulating their children from such hard living by teaching them a reverence for book-learning. They cautioned their children about the degradation inherent in looking back, and the offspring, being close enough to see for themselves, listened and learned well. Nevertheless, we younger generation of ordinary children, however far we got, remained with the smell of housework in our nostrils.

Women, for instance, knew by strict diligence to our own mothers, when behind the fridge was not cleaned. We read our books, but out of the corner of our eyes, watched every movement. Most of us had been trained on double-shift. Housework was considered an alternative if one's head could not take the books. In any case it was a necessary training ground for marriage.

But paradoxically in the midst of all its drudgery, knowing how to keep house had its own prestige. It was what gave a woman her "womanness." It was good bait to find a man, as well as the best ammunition to keep the worst of them from straying. Because no matter how much learning one got, the ability to do "more than boil water," was in the end what kept the home fires burning.

Besides, it could never go to waste or be lost. Knowing how to keep house was a useful and a vital survival skill. Every woman had to know how to do things herself. Just in case she did not have money or was left stranded, she had to know how to manage. There were even among us, women who could afford to pay house-help, yet did their own household chores just from bad habit! But the long and short of it was this: Which risen woman, however independent, could ever be caught not knowing how to cut and contrive, to make a dress, to darn, to sew, to make souse, to do everything? The coalbin was just a step on the other side of the years or of misfortune, whichever way she wanted to look at it.

So a woman like me who hired a domestic in her house was as expert at being a domestic as the domestic. I knew how to scrub a floor and mop. I knew where to look for dirt. It was just that I had neither time nor energy nor respect for the task to do it myself.

And this position between the hiring and hired was many a time a source of great conflict. Some did things differently in their house; some liked them done the way their mothers had taught them; some even liked to mix old ways and new ways; yet others liked to use their initiative.
There were many bosses and experts in the kitchen. It was a fact that servant and mistress were as close as mother or sister but in different skins. And each needed no advice in controling the one thing she had learnt from small to control: her domestic precinct.

Each hated the job, but loved the autonomy of it. If a woman were negligent about keeping her house, she could lose control of it—which was something only people who had money could afford. Yet it was too much work; too much humiliation, she didn't want to do it. Each sought to escape, even if it meant going out to sell cloth in a store, going out to an office, going to commercial school, saying one was going out to learn to sew, or any of the various forms of escape, some of which were termed by older people as excuses for downright idleness.

And the stamp of the job was ingrained sometimes in the quick. The office worker, though she might dress differently, (and not always could she afford the clothes) if closely examined in the right places, from picking up the slack in her house, might look little different from the domestic. The difference was as simple as priorities and what each valued. One might skimp and save to send herself or her children to added classes; the other might simply buy a new dress each time the foreign fashions came down and think, to hell with the consequences.

Each to each was familiar, each of us was wary of the other; and the love-contempt each for each in the kitchen and outside of it was implicit.

Hiring of house-help contains many unexpressed attitudes between the sisters and the daughters and the mothers in the kitchen and the ones who are fighting to get out. But the bottom line is that wherever we stand, most of us want to remove ourselves from it. There are countless variables in the positions between us emergent family dependents. Servitude and moving up and the knowledge of the distance between them make for unwritten laws and codes.
We women do not speak much about these relationships. But there is a lot of tug-of-war between us sisters who have relieved ourselves of the kitchen and those we have put in control of it. There are variables, like the differences in education and new ways of doing things versus old allegiances, that affect the relationships. All these issues are important, but not the least of them, is how they all relate to the actual fact of limited financial resources among those who only ostensibly appear to have some means, but indeed are little more than chained to false pride and slim privilege.

Posted by jebratt :: Wednesday, March 29, 2006 :: 0 comments

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