Before I read Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts, I kept a lot of secrets. I didn't tell anyone that every day I take an old toothbrush to the crud that collects around the faucets, that I rarely talk on the phone without a bottle of Windex and paper towel in hand as I walk around wiping off fingerprints. Housework is the third rail of feminism. Do too much of it, and you are out of the sisterhood. Talk about it, and you will find yourself discounted at work and shunned at parties.
But Mendelson, with her graceful, witty best seller on making a house a home, has made it acceptable for a generation of women and men to come out of the (uncluttered) closet. It is O.K. to find joy in a full refrigerator, an empty hamper and clean, well-lighted rooms. Just as it took Nixon to go to China, it took a lawyer (she graduated from Harvard) and philosopher (she has a Ph.D.) to legitimize housework. Mendelson once believed that only chumps did not order in, contract out or let it go as they pursued being buff, polished and ready to master the universe. Then one weekend when guests were coming, she blitzed her apartment, making beds with hospital corners, putting out fresh flowers, fixing pasta. She was astonished to find that the psychic reward was high.
Her interest in the domestic grew as she settled into a second marriage and motherhood and began to work only part time, teaching legal philosophy. She pored over her collection of old-time housework manuals and consulted innumerable experts, from fire fighters to microbiologists. Eight years later, she had more than 800 pages that are the final word on how to get out any stain, how to sweep a floor (to the center) and how to remove candle wax (apply ice until the wax crumbles). After reading her book, you will throw out your old sponges, always have white vinegar handy and become slightly paranoid about mold and dust mites. Her reigning philosophy is that the right way of doing something is almost always the fastest. Also, you should do only what you can.
Cheryl is not to be confused with Martha. She will not tie ribbons around 300-thread-count linens that someone else irons. (Mendelson says percale is fine and folding will do.) She will never crow over serving eggs laid by her own Araucana hens. Cheryl does not substitute crafts for life, and she has help only once a month or so. In her cozy Manhattan apartment, bikes are parked in the dining room, and the fridge door is a mess of notes, schedules and magnets. "Who can feel at home in a place where the demands for order are exaggerated?" she asks.
Mendelson says she does not get as many cold shoulders in social settings as she once did as both genders discover the limits of careers and the promise of home. "It's housekeeping that turns your home into a vital place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else," she says. "Housework is not drudgery. You don't know drudgery until you've parsed a commercial contract."