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Home Comforts: it’s where you belong

March 31st, 2004 · 2 Comments

This is the second time I’ve picked up this tome entitled Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. I first heard of it on NPR years ago. I checked it out and skimmed some chapters before it was due again at the library. Ted is the one who reserved this book this time. I picked it up for him at the library one morning, ironically enough, after copying Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic Monthly on nannies and serfdom…when Ted finished with it, I picked it up again for another skim-through (if anyone has read all the way through this one, I will be impressed!)

This book is not for those already feeling insecure about housework. Reading what Mendelson writes could only add to a person’s cleaning complex. Ignorance is indeed bliss. Yet I believe learning more about keeping house, the art and science behind it, provides purpose and significance to the mundane duties.

I feel I keep house well. Not wonderful. Yet well enough to keep a family of five going.

But my eyes have been opened. I was not aware that potatoes and onions should be stored separately, as well as potatoes and apples. Leafy greens and tomatoes also should be kept apart. I didn’t know that herbs keep better in the freezer. I could not define beetling or describe how to read cotton labels: Pima versus Egyptian versus Upland. I now know I can clean my chrome shower head with lemon juice: that’s useful. Her essay on how pets cause allergies caught my attention, her writings confirming our fears about adding animals to our family.

However, even for those who would rather not be instructed on how to vacuum walls (done weekly in the 1950s) or learn the true identity of a “dust bunny” under the bed (mites, mite excreta and skin scales, along with bacteria, insect parts, mold spores and other debris – p. 452)…those who dread sections titled “How to Use a Dust Mop”, refuse to study diagrams of ironing or don’t want to know what to do to disinfect a bidet, I believe this book still has value through the values of home that it celebrates.

Despite its seemingly mundane details concerning minutiae such as dust mites, and its less-than-action-packed prose, I found Home Comforts engaging and entertaining at times. The art and science of keeping house interests me for it speaks of our culture and history. What I lack in housekeeping skills and knowledge indicates wealth I’ve lost and this is what Mendelson seeks to restore.

All of us inevitably become textile consumers. Nowadays, however, our taste is usually unconsious and inarticulate because, for a variety of historical reasons, most of us know far less about textiles than ordinary people once did. We may know what we like when we see or touch it, but we do not know what to look or ask for or how to use and care for fabrics. This diminished understanding of what so intimately concerns all of us is partly due to our increasing distance from the manufacturing, production and care processes. But there is also far more to know than there used to be. page 194 “Cloth”

The book begins with “My Secret Life”, the author’s story of how her life drew her to write the book, a journey from her girlhood through law school to her motherhood. From page 7:

Just as you can read a culture in the way its people fold a shirt (or do not), little domestic habits are what give everybody’s home the special qualities that make it their own and let them feel at home there. […]

This sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part, it is a sense of having special rights, dignities and entitlements – and these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security. Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come hom and close the door behind you, reduced fear of social and emotional danger as well as of physical ones. When you are home, you can let down your guard and take off your mask. Home is the one place in the world where you are safe from feeling put down or out, unentitled or unwanted. It’s where you belong, or, as the poet said, the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Coming home is your major restorative in life.

There are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world – or even by moving into the house of your dreams.[…]

Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than anywhere else.

Tags: books

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Katherine // Mar 31, 2004 at 2:55 pm

    The question that came to my mind is, “Why did Ted want to read it?” And what did he get out of it? No link to a post from him…

  • 2 Ted Leung // Apr 3, 2004 at 12:19 am


    It was referenced in this presentation from the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, “Life Hacks of the Alpha Geeks”: http://trevor.typepad.com/blog/unpaid_interns.txt

    I”m always looking for “life hacks” both in and outside the computer.

    I found the book to be more useful as a reference after a light reading — there’s more stuff in there than I think any person should have a need to know.