It was during a phone call a year or so ago when my best friend Daron mentioned he had a book, that the octogenarian English matron who once employed him as a personal chef had given it to him years before as a cookbook, and he'd come across it while cleaning out the basement.
"It's from 1960," he said, riffling pages over the line, "but it's based on some hundred-something-year-old book. And it's mostly a cookbook, but it's also hilarious. There are all these chapters on how to furnish your house and how to treat your servants, how to be the ideal wife and the perfect hostess. . . I'm actually quoting that: 'The Perfect Hostess'!"
"Bring it over immediately," I answered.
From the mere mention of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, I was mesmerized -- initially, like Daron, as a jokey relic of pre-feminism, with its spine-cover image of a Betty Draper lookalike slipping cookies into the oven and admonishment that the role of a woman is "to inspire a feeling of comfort and happiness, to see that all runs smoothly, that meals are punctual and well cooked, and that the house kept clean, tidy and as beautiful as possible; and that the well-being of each member of the family is considered."
I mean, come ON: it's 2010, lady! Can't a woman have a few personal goals and outside entertainments and aspirations, a little something for herself?!
But over the past year, the responsibilities of what I'd elected to do with my life four years before -- of raising a preschooler and a toddler as a stay-at-home mother and maintaining a home -- had begun to weigh on me, heavy as a house. Michael and I had worked hard to make it on a single income so our daughters wouldn't be raised by strangers, but these days, just as things were getting good for us, I felt like the stranger in my home: one who no longer knew what it meant to perform a rote series of tasks in the same place, with no tangible rewards and no conceivable end in sight. Somewhere along the way, being a homemaker had gone from the simple focus of its early days to a numbing hamster wheel; whereas Michael had a 9-5 job with a salary and performance-based raises and work buddies and happy hours, I had a 24-7, on-call post; long days spent in isolation with the children, but with precious little time to myself; and ceaseless, thankless household drudgery.
In tandem with my domestic joylessness, my own outside entertainments and aspirations had begun to wane; once the ever-cheerful optimist, I was now a glum and moody homebody seeing only the vainness of my efforts: crumbs vacuumed and liquids sponged and stains busted only to be instantly soiled anew, the days and weeks now bleeding together into months. The only pockets of sanity seemed to be a night out here or there with a friend or three, which Mike had begun to implore me to take more often.
Ironically, while homemaking was all that I did, these days I had ceased to be entirely committed to it, doing the bare minimum to get each job accomplished. And with this, I sensed a weakening in the care with which I attended the beloved people in my orbit: making time for friends, doing special projects with the girls, even being affectionate with Michael; in months past, I'd begun to let them all wither on the vine.
But more and more, the dated, strange book on the shelf began to pull to me, Isabella Beeton's opening salvo a powerful call to arms: "AS WITH THE COMMANDER OF AN ARMY, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house." Which is why for the next year, I'll be turning to Mrs. Beeton's nearly 150-year-old Book of Household Management with a desperate purpose: to take back this house -- to see beyond its drudgeries, even to claim my own role in engineering its joys.
And through it, I hope, to rediscover my own.
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