When my brother Tim was little, before I was born, Mom and Dad shipped him off to our paternal grandmother in Vicksburg, Mississippi for a month or so.
I never knew Maude except through family legend. She was the “Madelaine Landre” of traveling circus fame. But in one of his rare anecdotes about his childhood, Dad told us his mother would follow him with a broom and dustpan when he walked around the house eating cookies. If he got up in the night, he said his bed would be made when he came back.
Anyway, Timmy spent a month with Maude long after her circus days, when she was a melancholy widow selling Fuller products. He was delivered back to Mum and Dad with his clothes pressed, his shirt tucked in, his hair slicked down. When they greeted him, he shook their hands limply. He didn’t speak unless spoken to and then he said, “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am” and “Thank you, sir.”
Our free-thinking parents were horrified. They couldn’t wait to muss up his hair and get him back to his orn’ry, cussed self again, interrupting and talking back and picking on his younger brother. We moved to Japan when Tim was 15. Tim says, “During the year I was in Japan with the family I read about something back in the States called a ‘teenager’ and I wanted to be one.” So he flew back to boarding school and by the time we saw him again he was wearing denim (jeans and jacket), smoking and drinking and doing drugs.
Since he’s been living with us, I haven’t tried to domesticate Tim as much as Grandma Maude did. I wouldn’t want to do that to him and he wouldn’t let me. But I do remind him not to use the same knife for the peanut butter and the jelly. And the fork or spoon you’re eating with should not be dipped or poked into– anything but your mouth. (After I found soggy Corn Flakes in the jar of apple sauce, I switched to apple sauce in little cups.) I did stop him dumping leftover food into the wastebasket. I know he wants to help but I had to tell him to put used dishes to the right of the kitchen sink, not in the dish drain or back in the cupboard. After he’s asleep I do spirit the dirty clothes out to the washer so the only options left to him are clean.
At first I nudged him to take a shower every few days. Once, when it had been four or five, he protested, “Why? I’m not going for a job interview.” So I backed off and he has fallen into his own pattern, appearing at the top of the stairs in his robe once or twice a week.
On the first day he found me stripping his bed, he looked puzzled.
“We wash the sheets once a week,” I explained. He looked surprised.
I took advantage of the moment to add, “Jerry and I take a shower and change our clothes every day.”
“Every day?” He looked utterly astonished.
But how would he have learned the niceties of hygiene and keeping house? Sammis/Leonard/Reynolds women are notorious for being writers, not housekeepers. A “Nana dinner” meant lumpy mashed potatoes and burnt “little pig sausages.” Breakfast with our grandmother DiggyDee was burnt toast and boiled eggs, with tea made from the water they were boiled in.
Ted’s first wife burnt a pan of biscuits so thoroughly she nailed the whole panful to the wall afterwards as art. (By contrast, my husband Jerry’s mother taught all four of her boys to cook.)
Mum wasn’t much of a housekeeper and no one expected boys to learn anything domestic in those days. Like me, Mum did as little mending as she could get away with. Somehow the trunk of Tim’s stuffed elephant Ellie got ripped off and she laboriously sewed it back on—upside-down. In home ec I managed to sew one side of a long dress sleeve down the side of the dress itself.
Tim wouldn’t have learned domesticity in Japan–we had Japanese “housegirls,” struggling to make a living after World War 2, to do our chores for us. He lived away from home the rest of his life, sometimes with girlfriends who handled that kind of thing for him, mostly alone, until we moved him in with us. Anything he learned in boarding school or the army he probably shucked off, first chance he got.
I should be grateful he picked up as much as he did, even if it isn’t clothes.