I wrote this article quite a few years back for a magazine that then went under. I had to follow the principles of The Good Wife’s Guide, written in 1955.
Beware: Woman at Home
I put on some music to get me in the mood. It’s The Big Bopper doing his thing, singing Chantilly Lace:
That wiggle in the walk and giggle in the talk
Makes the world go round
The 1950s – a decade of simple, if rather unmatched, division: women commandeered the home front and men ruled, well… the world. Luckily, women had the Good Wife’s Guide (GWG), written during that period, to show them how to keep the home fires burning. Without that, I wouldn’t know where to start to recreate that quintessentially 1950s atmosphere where men were men, women were women, husbands were kings and wives were there to serve.
Starting with a general principle from the GWG: “Try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax. “ To check this out I dial my husband’s number at the university, where he works as a philosophy lecturer.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Reading a book and eating a hummus sandwich,” says Greg.
“Do you want to come home?”
“When – now?” He sounds nervous and shifty. But then he sighs and says: “If you feel like you’re going mad, I’ll come home and look after Jacob for a bit.”
Having reassured Greg that our child is safely in my care, I decide now is a good time to “take 15 minutes to rest “, mostly to look refreshed when my husband returns. I lie down on my back and stare at the white square of the ceiling. I’m starting to imagine a box of chocolates and a novel and that maybe I’m a 50s woman at heart when Luna the dog wages battle number 3065 with its colleague next door. I kneel on the bed and shout very non-1950s language out the window. My three-year-old comes running to this place of interest.
Housewife, baby and stove
“What are you saying, Mama?”
“Dog language, I was talking to Luna. The kind of things people must never say.”
He climbs on the bed and lies on my leg. “Make digger loader,” he instructs me. I lift my leg with him attached limpet-like to it. It’s agonising on my stomach muscles, worse than Brunhilde’s Pilates class. Any attempt to remove him from my leg draws forth piercing howls of protest. I decide I’m feeling sufficiently rested.
It’s time to move on to the next section of my day. Luckily I spent some time in the morning thinking about dinner, which needs to be ready on time for my husband’s return. The Telegraph website offers some guidance: “The typical 1950s housewife would prepare a stew or hotpot with around 14 food items including a variety of vegetable, suet, milk or lard and plenty of salt, pepper and butter.” Unfortunately, that rules out a toasted cheese snackwich, our favourite dinner repast. And the gentleman at Woolworths was no help either when I went shopping earlier. “I don’t know, lady,” he said, when I asked him where they stocked the suet.
In the end I decide on pasta puttanesca (directly translated as ‘whore’s pasta’), and while it bubbles with wild abandon on the stove, I prepare myself for Father’s return. “Touch up your make-up and put a ribbon in your hair,” advises the GWG, always helpful in a crisis. I haul out an old mascara wand, unused since my dating days, and clump a few black splodges on my eyelashes. I can’t find a ribbon so make a bow out a length of raffia, taken from a staked plant, which I pin on the top of my head. It doesn’t seem to do much for my looks.
“Why do your eyelashes have ants on them?” asks Jacob, as I stuff his chubby legs into clean shorts. I’m also trying to comb his hair (a GWG requirement), while listening to the tinkle of G and T glasses from the next door’s garden party. My image of the 1950s child is pink cheeked and curly haired, calling its father ‘Sir’ (blame it on too much American television in my childhood). The comb sticks slightly and pulls. Jacob screams like I’m killing him, eliciting an extended, and rather worrying, silence in the glass clinking. I mutter some more dog language directed at the neighbours under my breath.
I hear the putter of Greg’s old car turning in our driveway. The Lord of the Manor, He Who Goes To Work, is returning. I whizz through the house picking up “clutter” (stuffing a big teetering pile of Jacob’s toys under the dining room table where they’ll make a very good foot rest). The GWG rings in my ears: “Be a little gay and more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.” A lift? That sounds promising, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for thinking about England tonight. My chores have been endless today.
Jacob, due to his victory over the comb, has decided to push for more power. In a startlingly short period of time he has removed all his clothes, bar my shower cap, which he has perched at a rakish angle on his head. He looks like a demented colonel. However, this is no time for a battle, which I’m sure to lose. I can hear the heavy tread of the Head of the Household as he makes his way to the front door. Jacob and I stand to attention like a column of servants in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs.
“Why are we waiting at the door?” asks Jacob. “Does Daddy have a present for me?”
My husband is about to enter his home, “a place of peace, order and tranquility where he can renew himself in body and spirit.” Sounds like a spa in Stellenbosch. Is there place for me too? I whip the shower cap off my son’s head as the key turns in the lock – Greg does not need to be confronted with such silly female paraphenalia at his homecoming. Jacob squeaks in outrage at the profound loss of his head gear. I sense the tsunami approach of a tantrum and act accordingly. “I’ll give you a box of Smarties if you shut up,” I whisper in his ear. A tidal wave of screaming is stopped in its tracks.
The GWG leads me by the hand to the next stage of the evening. “You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – his topics of conversation are more important than yours.” I look up at Greg expectantly, bat my clumpy, uncomfortable eyelashes a few times. He says nothing – a strange and rather tense silence wraps itself between us. I wait.
“I really need to go to the toilet,” he says. I’m not sure this constitutes an important topic of conversation but I stand aside to let him through the entrance hall.
“Make the evening his,” says the GWG but he seems less than appreciative – in fact, truth be told, he jumps – when he finds me waiting outside the bathroom door. I’m only hanging out there so that I can lead him to the lounge where I lie him down and plump some cushions behind his head. At last he seems to be perking up, particularly when I ask, as the GWG recommends, if I can remove his shoes.
“Yes,” he says eagerly – there’s a husky quality to his voice. “Why don’t you come and sit next to me?”
The GWG chooses this moment to go silent on me. I know that I should “never complain if he comes home late or goes out to places of entertainment without you”, but what is to be done if the entertainment involves my wifely presence?
“What about a drink, dear?” I speak in a “low, soothing voice”, which propels Luna to sidle up and stare adoringly into my eyes. I edge into the kitchen, where the puttanesca has worked itself up into a cloud of steam.
A quick peek out the kitchen door shows Jacob tenderly wrapping Greg’s foot in my bright yellow pashmina. “You don’t need to lie down anymore, daddy. I’ve made you all better,” he says, giving Greg a brisk pat on the shoulder.
I return to the puttanesca which is in a worse condition than I thought. All this waiting outside bathroom doors and plumping up cushions and cleaning clutter and ministering to Greg has left no time for checking the supper. I grab the pot off the stove. A burnt smell wafts though the house.
“Mama’s speaking dog language.” I hear Jacob telling his father.
Enough is enough. I’m coming out of the kitchen now. “Come,” I say to Jacob and Greg, who is slowly unwrappng the pashmina from his foot, “We’re going out for dinner – and I’m paying.”