Nothing Works but Me

C. S. JENNISONivrites light verse and prose with equal facility and is a frequent contributor to the ATLANTICand other magazines.

With all the mechanical and domestic aids available in present-day living, psychologists are getting pretty thoughtful about the plight of the modern housewife. How, they keep asking, is the Little Woman going to fill her time?

I believe that I can answer that question. Speaking as one housewife whose home is loaded with laborsaving devices, I can honestly say that I have experienced no real problem in putting my leisure to good advantage. I simply spend the hours saved by half of the helpful gadgets coping with the other half that aren’t functioning. Now and then, I find myself wondering just who is working for whom, but I try not to brood about it.

I think my house is modern and mechanical enough to bother the best psychologist. It bothers me, too. The kitchen is full of those nice stainless counters that never show scorches or knife marks. Just thumb prints, water spots, fly tracks, crumbs, grains of flour or sugar, and anything else you care to mention. If I am careful to wipe the surface twenty times a day with an absolutely clean cloth, free of Pink Whammo or Blue Smudge Cleanser, the metal stays pristine and gleaming with a minimum of effort. The same rule applies to those nifty copper-bottomed pans that last a lifetime. Forty or fifty minutes of uninterrupted polishing after each meal will keep them gay and sparkling enough to please even the most fastidious homemaker, I am not referring to myself. Personally, I leave mine tarnished and store them in the oven, where the broiler broke last June.

No, I guess it was July. June was the month when the well cooker and the only large burner quit. I haven’t really missed the well cooker. It’s such a useful receptacle for holding odd silverware and unsharpened paring knives. And with two burners still in fair condition, I wouldn’t complain about the loss of the third if it weren’t for the fact that whenever I want to cook more than four lamb chops I have to divide them between two small frying pans on the little burners, while I’m keeping the peas and mashed potatoes hot on the radiator. (I don’t wish to be reminded that lamb chops are much better broiled. See paragraph three. No broiler.)

The role of the housewife in a push-button world is not the unimaginative sluggard’s occupation that the psychiatrists and company would like to have people believe. Among my own indispensable domestic appliances, I can name a handy icebox with a short in it, a handy wall fan that won’t run, a lot of stove timers and clocks that have long since been defunct, an electric saucepan and fryer that are back at the factory, and several other items I shall bring up later. At the present writing, I

am using a cheap alarm clock to replace the timers, I carefully clutch a piece of old inner tube each time I approach the icebox to get at the leftover roast, and I simply open the door when I want to air the smoke out of the kitchen. An open door in lieu of a wall fan cools the room off a good deal in winter, but I usually solve this problem by wearing a storm coat with an apron over it. I’ll admit that the outfit is a trifle bulky for easy cooking pleasure, but I got more or less accustomed to heavy kitchen apparel the year the pipes kept freezing under the sink. As I look back, I consider myself fortunate that the vacuum cleaner and oven were both functioning that year. Otherwise, I’d never have been able to plug in the vacuum in reverse on the oven door, in order to run the heat under the sink to thaw the plumbing.

Speaking of plumbing, we seem to have more than a fair share of it in our rambling split-level colonial. Two showers without pressure, two bathtubs that run all the time, and a laundry tub that’s plugged. (Also, assorted basins and a lot of that lovely chrome that stays pristine and gleaming with a minimum of effort, if I am careful to wipe the surfaces twenty times a day with an absolutely clean cloth, etc. See paragraph three.) I can’t say I was sorry to stop using the laundry tub when the washing machine broke two years ago. We were having our usual spring flood in the cellar, and even with my sneakers on I felt pretty uncomfortable about running the washer while I was standing ankle deep in water. I know electricity is perfectly safe if you understand it. But I always remember the morning I got riveted to the floor by placing one hand casually on a steel counter \ as I reached for the icebox handle with the other. You don’t forget those things in a hurry,

I suppose all the doctors and psychiatrists reading this article are wondering whether or not I have ever heard of plumbers, electricians, and repairmen. My reply is, Yes, I’ve heard of them. I’ve even met a few. Big, jolly men who usually drive black Cadillacs — but not in my direction. On the rare occasions when they deign to respond to my appeals for succor, they wander around the house, comment on the pictures and décor, and say they’ll be back tomorrow when they get the parts. Six months later, they return when I’m out, fix something that isn’t broken, and send me an itemized but completely incomprehensible bill for fifty dollars or so. Either that or they gaze mournfully at whatever appurtenance is afflicted and fall back on the blanket but irrefutable phrase, “Out of stock.” Who am I to argue? What do I know about the mysteries of the trade?

Well, the pioneer woman got along, and so can I. Over the years, I have learned to improvise and to keep my temper when possible, give in to fate when necessary, and in the meantime avoid any real dependence on science’s untrustworthy little gifts to the Woman of Today. I believe I’m more a Woman of Yesterday, anyhow. I wouldn’t think of cleaning the house with a vacuum cleaner when I’m expecting guests, for instance. That way, I don’t run the risk of scooping an extra bagful of dirt off the carpet and limping around all evening because the metal tube has fallen apart and landed on my foot. I use a broom instead. And when I’m putting cigarettes on the tables I ignore the cigarette lighters. If they’re not out of fluid, the filters need changing. And if the filters are all right, the wicks are used up. And besides, like most women, I’ve discovered something better. Matches.

My desk drawer is stuffed with torn and spotted little pamphlets telling me what to do in case of mechanical failures in the home. I could read these pamphlets, but what would be the sense? Whenever I can’t figure out my own stopgap answer to a problem, I know exactly what to do until the repairman comes. Scream.