Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Would Granny Do?

A few days before Christmas, I sat in my grandmother's living room, listening to her tell stories of her mom.  

"She'd buy a 50 pound bag of flour, and there was a special drawer in the kitchen.  She would make loaves and loaves of bread, just scooping out flour from the drawer until it 'looked right.'  She never used a recipe."

"Joe [her brother] worked down at the A&P down over the hill.  They always wore starched shirts and wanted to look just so.  So he'd wear one shirt in the morning and come home and change at lunch, and then if he went out dancing he'd put on a clean one in the evening.  My mother ironed all those shirts.  She'd dampen them and roll them up  and starch them and iron them."

"If she wasn't working, she was praying."

I began to have a burning desire to want to do an internship with my Granny.  

I want to hang my apron next to hers and tie it on with her in the morning and have the fresh bread baking [sans recipe] and the shirts all ironed and the house sparkling, and I want to chat with her in the evening as our crochet hooks spin yarn into afghans.

(Most relevant picture I could find in my archives.
We'll call it "Apron on Hook,"
although it is fitting that the fabric is from my other great-grandmother.)
(Irrelevant side note, I really, really miss my kitchen.)
Whenever I think about it, I am always amazed by all that she and her generation got done.  I buy our bread and Justin only wears one (non-starched) shirt a day, and yet I'm still floundering many days.  She could run circles around me, not just in efficiency, but I'm sure in quality, too.

Why?  How?

I don't know much about Pappy (other than that he had amazing gardens) but at least stereotypically the husbands of that era were doing less housework and childcare than ours do today.  Chores were harder with many appliances we take for granted not even available, and it was commonplace to do chores and tasks that we've just about written off as a culture.

It really comes down to women capable of doing much more with much less (in terms of modern conveniences, that is).  There is a huge component of their success (and our failure) that comes down simply to discipline, to doing what needs done when it needs done.  And I certainly can work harder and longer and come closer to what Granny could accomplish.

But before I fall into despair at being the first lazy woman in a long line of incredible mothers and homemakers, I stop myself and recognize that we don't live in Granny's era anymore.  There are a few significant differences (besides work ethic) that make our days look so different.

First, travel.  Our generation is constantly on the run, errands here, play dates there.  You can't bake as much bread if you're spending more time in the minivan than the kitchen.  I don't think Granny and Pappy ever owned a car.

Second, isolation.  This creates the necessity for the travel, but it also means that it's more lonely.  And the sense of working alone...which is certainly not motivational.  Granny and Pappy's entire extended families all lived in the same city, and the men and women up and down their street were all doing the same things (working on the railroad, and making bread, respectively).  Except the little bit of time Justin has at the end of his long work days, I'm pretty much at it alone.

Third, acquisition.  We live in a culture of stuff.  We're constantly running off to get it (see, travel) and trying to deal with it once we have it.  Their closets couldn't have been as stuffed as ours, or their piles of things to be put away after Christmas quite so high.  

And, finally, the elephant in the room: technology.  Most of you probably expected that the Internet would be first on the list, and maybe practically speaking it's the biggest time-suck that's preventing me from actually ironing shirts and baking bread.  Many times I've thought that my life might be better if I just threw the computer and the cell phone out the window, thus removing the temptations that are wooing me away from who and what I really want to be.

But in a technologically-centric world, if I do that, I'll throw out the time-wasting...but also the connections and the information and the access.  If I deactivate my Facebook, I might not otherwise hear the news about a good friend's baby due next month.  If I stop checking my email, I might not know that the women in town are getting together on Wednesday evening.  No one will just stop by for a visit as they might have for Granny.  No one will write me a newsy update letter.  No one will stop to chat with me over the fence while we both hang out our laundry, because that "neighbor" commiserating about teething babies or comparing notes on dinner plans is miles or even states away.

Ditching the technology is ditching some of the last threads of connection in a physically and emotionally isolating daily life.  And so we're stuck, beholden to an addicting technology for the sake of maintaining our human relations.

I haven't figured it all out, this relationship with technology, and I guess that's OK.  We're the first generation of mothers to navigate a world of so very, very many screens.  It's actually pretty scary how quickly technology has developed in my short life: I remember my dad's first brick-sized "car phone" that felt so incredibly swanky.

If push came to shove, I probably wouldn't jump in the time machine to go back to Granny's time.  Not to stay, at least, but I certainly would love an afternoon visit!  I'm grateful for the blessings and benefits of our age, like the fact that my firstborn lives in a time that has the antibiotics to keep her alive through the fever that took Granny's at 9 months old.  I had the opportunity to go to college and have a career before I made the choice to stay home with my girls.

But despite my appreciation for our times, I still feel lost in them.  The 'Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual' was circulating on Facebook again today and I felt lonely and sad amidst the "LOL"s and the "Can you believe it"s.  I can't stop the nagging feeling that Granny had some things better.  Her days were longer, her work was harder.  But I sense an authenticity and an accomplishment and a discipline and a culture that we have lost. 

Neither time is perfect, I suppose.  We need to fight to remember what was good of the past to keep it a part of our future.  On the hard days when I face a long list of chores and a hungry family that needs dinner, I recall the stories of one remarkable woman and ask myself, "What Would Granny Do?"  

And I put on my apron and say a prayer.


  1. One other thought about how women a few generations ago were more productive: if they didn't get as much done as they did, it had serious ramifications for the rest of the family. If they didn't do all their baking on Monday, there would be no bread for anyone the rest of the week! If they didn't do the laundry, you didn't have more clean clothes to pick from. Without the modern appliances we have, our chores take on a much more dire importance. Now, if I've had a rough day and I'm exhausted, I can walk away from the dishes and it's no big deal. Back then, there was no skipping chores or putting them off.

    And you know what? I wish I was more productive, but I think the leisure that our world affords us is really good for mental health and for the health of the family. I can really focus on my kids more because chores are not of the utmost importance. I can make time for myself if I really truly need it. I think women in the olden days lived with mental illness and exhaustion, and their children didn't necessarily get as much nurturing and attention. I mean, kids can get too much attention of course! It's a balance.

    I have ample room for growth in the housekeeping department. My old land lady was a meticulous housekeeper. She woke up at 5:30 and had all of her chores done by 8! What the what? I don't know if I'll ever get that good, but I think about her all the time when I'm wasting time and the memory of her tireless care of her house usually lights a fire under my butt. And with that said, time to clean up my breakfast mess! Great post!

  2. Hi - I found this post through Rosie at A Blog for My mother. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. These same ponderings and questions are on my mind often. I have a feeling I might just spend the next few days reading through more of your posts! I expect you've already read it, but in case you have not, check out the book Never Done by Susan Strasser. It has a lot of detailed history about what women's daily lives were like in the past.