By DENENE MILLNER
I’m not a slob. Well, not really. Okay, okay, already—I might have some junkyard tendencies. Yes, my walk-in closet is so flooded with abandoned shoes, too-tight jeans, and nostalgic Busta Rhymes t-shirts that you can’t walk two inches into it without tripping on something. And I’m sure that a fire inspector would shut my bedroom down if he got a gander of the taller-than-my-six-year-old pile of dog-eared books, half-filled photo albums, and thumbed-through O Home, Essence, Real Simple, and Domino magazines. But the common areas at the Millner/Chiles abode? The kitchen, sitting areas, dining room, and kids’ quarters? You could lick butter off the floor.
Especially if company is coming.
Oh, you can count on me sweeping floors, fluffing pillows, dusting the high shelves, laying out the good towels, ironing pillowcases—all of that—if somebody’s coming through the crib. Bad habit I picked up from my mom. Seemed like the minute she got the three-month schedule for Bible study classes, she’d circle her date on the calendar and then put me, my brother, and my Dad on notice that for the entire week leading up to her turn to host the Saturday Good Word fest, we would all be getting real cozy with the mop and bucket. The woman was generally neat, but if company was coming through, her house was impeccable. The deaconesses were watching. She had a rep to protect.
Be clear: Bettye was a working mother—toiled in a windowless factory room at Estee Lauder for 10 hours a day, starting at the cosmetics company as a lipstick flamer (she actually flicked dull tubes of pigment under Bunsen burners to give them their shine) and ending her 25-plus-year career working her way up to quality control, where she gave the nod to bags, umbrellas, and the like. She’d be dog tired, dragging in from work, barely in the door before she had dinner on the stove, and then on the plate, and then in a pan of hot, soapy water, and then herself in a bathtub of hot, soapy water, and then to bed, ready at 5 a.m. to do it all over again. Surely, somebody would have forgiven her if there were a little dust on the étagère. She never yielded to the excuse, though.
She just handled it.
So that her baby girl wouldn’t have to.
But on my worst days, I don’t—can’t—extend my own self such benevolence. I come from a lineage of women who went from the fields and the big houses to the factories and the office desks and yes, to the boardrooms, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Wasn’t nary one of them talking about “work/life balance” and “having it all” and all the hub bub parent magazines and pop psychologists assign to today’s beleaguered working moms. You wanted to eat? You worked. And you kept the house and kids clean because, well, who else was going to? It was what it was.
And my situation is what it is because I made it so; I just walked away from a good job with benefits to do what black women for many generations before mine simply didn’t have the luxury of doing—stay at home, raise my kids, and work when the assignments come (and I feel like being bothered). This is called choice. And on more days than not, I nod my head and give thanks that my parents (my father, too, was and still is an incredibly hard working man), my husband (a fantastic provider), and my years as a New York journalist and editor afforded me the ability and the opportunity to make one—a choice, that is.
Still, I can’t help some days but to think that I broke the rules, somehow. That I hit the Pick 4—didn’t earn this great fortune the legit way, with blood, sweat and tears (though my DNA can be found in newsrooms and magazine offices scattered all over New York). Sometimes, I feel like I need to slip off and clock-in at the nearest factory—to prove I know how to do the honest, hard, back-breaking stuff.
But seeing as even the factory jobs are hard to come by, my self-reproach manifests itself instead in my perfectly starched pillowcases, and my sizzling pans of made-from-scratch smothered chicken, and floors clean enough for you to lick butter off of them.
I want to say this is just my own hang-up.
But really, it’s not. I’m constantly pulled in this direction and that—asked, no, expected, to just say yes. To classroom projects. And neighborhood functions. And friend obligations. My Dad, perfectly loving, sweet man that he is, has suggested on more than one occasion that I have plenty of time on my hands to do (insert your random errand/appointment/just-do-it-dammit project here). “You ain’t doing nothin’ no way,” he’s said matter-of-factly. Out loud. Of course, this is by no means true. Each request, though, confirms every sneaking suspicion lurking in the back of my mind—that though I toil away on the computer literally all damn day, nobody really thinks I, a writer, am working. Indeed, a writer works in silence and solitude and anonymity. I don’t get dirty and greasy or take orders from people I don’t like, but I do sweat and think and sweat and think some more. All the time. Non-stop. Even when nobody thinks I am.
For sure, I ain't one of those bon-bon eating housewives.
But on some days, I have a hard time convincing even myself.
The next time that day comes around, maybe I’ll tackle that closet.