In these days, when houses are no longer ‘correctly staffed,’ I function as the odd-job woman myself. This keeps me alert to the episodic detail, and unwontedly active—‘squirreling’ is my son’s word for it.
If a personal investigation is made of black ants in the cupboards, I make it, though I have none of Fabre’s enthusiasm for an insect as such. Most amiably I come and see why the handle of the ice-cream freezer does not turn. Is old cloth desired for window-polishing, and new for ironing-boards? I hunt it up. I put in fuses, instruct in firebuilding, in cake-making, and in tomato-canning. I frame versatile replies to reports like: ‘They have n’t brought the roast yet, and it’s a good six o’clock already.’
My charming garden is always waiting if I turn my back on the frittering insignificances inside the house. A poet would love its gallant walks, I think. But I am not a poet in the garden. I am not an artist. I am not, heaven knows, an exquisite Edith-Whartonish creature seeking the modulations of a studied background. I am, instead, that pitiable object, a housekeeper out of bounds.
I am keyed up, in the garden, not to the beautiful, but to the betterable. I am an adjuster, a patter, a plucker. My son finds me distressingly energetic, and contends that the rusty trowel hiding under the foxglove leaves is never sure of any time to itself. He thinks that I transplant through sheer nervousness, or to exercise an unseemly autocracy. While he jokes, my busy eye weighs the claims of the grass-paths to be clipped, against the urgent need of the delphiniums to be staked. I decide that the lilies shall be mulched, the irises reset, the difficult phloxes given away to some Bakst color-schemer, the bare spaces covered.
The problem of what is to succeed ten thousand daffodils probably never worried Wordsworth on his couch. But an American housekeeper on her knees, thrusting in the unloved zinnia and the drought-proof marigold for the hardy border’s sake, has no leisure for the compensations of memory. The trowel pokes and covers. On the garden-seat a quizzical oriole perches to inquire, ‘Is summer a time for anxieties and exertions? Can it be her food she is after, with the world June-full of strawberries and peas?’
I rise stiffly to follow his trail of light into the vegetable garden. This, rightly seen, is no domain of mine, and my inspirations and interferences beyond its hedge are dreadfully officious. My son has told me so. He uses the considerate phrasing of a burden-bearer who would spare a woman knowledge of the harsh realities. So I choose my time for invasion.
Yet mine the fingers that teach the sprawling beans the way to heaven. Mine the subtle passes about the lettuces, orbits of intensive cultivation that justify my son’s complacent, ‘Anyone can grow head-lettuce. I can’t think why it is n’t oftener a success!’ Mine the promptings to the gardener when the hour comes to spray currants, or net them, or pluck them, jelly-ripe. And mine, most of all, the thinningsout. For, whereas my son is a thick planter, I am a thin one, and distrust his system to produce the corn and carrots we both like so well.
The comic spirit is not in me, or it would fold its hands and grow plump in contemplation of my son’s garden. He has parsley enough to embower a hundred French chefs. Like a giant’s flungdown cloak of green corduroy, its close ridges lie. ‘Because,’ says my son, ‘in Bermuda it grows that way. Is n’t it jolly to look at?’ I suppose so, to an artist or to a philosopher. But to the housekeeper in me all that parsley is terrible — like ice-box left-overs, causing direct pressure on the ingenuity.
There is comedy too in the radish, stretching like a surveyor’s chain a hundred and fifty feet down the garden, the round pink marbles beneath the ground increasing in size and virulence unmolested by a household indifferent to them. My son, I think, feels useful rather than comic when he plants this row. I pass by daily in great searchings of heart, determining upon the hour when it will seem neat and intelligent, instead of reckless and cruel, to order its uprooting.
I am still insufferably a housekeeper when I climb the hill above the vineyard and feel the wind coming to meet me up the long slope under the apple trees. The view is what my son comes here for — and what the gardener must come for too, I sometimes think, shaking my head at evidences of careless spraying, and at the globes of color lying in the grass. I proceed with pockets and fingers clumsily full of apples, an extra furrow on my forehead, and the purple distances all unseen.
Once I saw the road through the woods imaginatively — when we laid it out. Bird notes, and sudden coolness, and the incessant lovely fluttering of leaves. Fools of green light, and skyglimpses, and, at the road’s end, the low happy eaves of Our Home. I walk the road now with other eyes, seeing ruts to be graveled-in, dead branches to be tidied away, hanging boughs to be trimmed back. I see a cigarette box, sign of the grocer’s boy; a trail of pink wrappings from the milkman’s companionable gum. I collect these, and add an empty grape-sack or two, proof that the paper-boy has not gone unrefreshed through the upper vineyard, where our choicest clusters ripen intensively in bags.
The blue lake beckons — surely I can escape this picayunishness of soul down on the beach. The rhythm and color of moving water which I am powerless to change or to better would shame me into the quiet of an uncritical joy. But the stone steps to the shore are slippery and perilous. Something can be done to make them safer, I know. The rowboat is knocking on the slide; someone must be called to secure it. A picnic party enjoying God’s out-ofdoors has apparently chosen our beach on which to burn everything available except its own litter of paper plates and boxes. And down the other shore, the way to peace is barred by three forlorn fish, unburied.
Yeats, I think, was wrong about owning a home in Innisfree, with beanrows and beehives, and all that. A woman, at least, stands a great deal better chance at listening to the linnet’s wings and the lapping water from the town’s gray pavements. For if she becomes a country housekeeper, inevitably she housekeeps the country. And the happy housekeeper is she whose myopic intensities are never allowed beyond her threshold.