Harriet, the Harried (Sometimes Hapless) (But Usually Happy) Housewife

To throw out a used aluminum pan or keep it? Wash those dishes now, or push it off for later? All in Installment 9 of N’shei Chabad Newsletter’s nostalgic Harriet the Housewife columns.

By Rishe Deitsch
Originally published in the 1980s in the N’shei Chabad Newsletter

No matter how grown up we get, how logical, how smart, how mature, in some ways we never grow up. For example, when a dress gets dirty (just a little itty bitty stain) do we give it to the cleaners? No, of course not. Any true HH worth her Ajax will tell you what she does: she wears it. One More Time to a place where probably nobody will see her, and then and only then does she take the thing to be cleaned. Gotta squeeze one last use out of that dress! Frugal, or just lazy?

It’s the same with those disposable aluminum pans. Yes, we line them with parchment paper before plunking down the chicken quarters. But sometimes the grease and burnt stuff does get through. Hey! That’s why we’re using disposable, remember? To avoid scrubbing, remember? But no. A little voice cries, “One More Time, then throw it away!” Thrifty, or just cheap?

And that tube of toothpaste? Tell me, Harriets of the world, doesn’t there come a point when even you would agree it’s time to throw it out and buy a new one? But you’ve got to get One More Brushing out of that deformed thing. It’s not frugality or laziness – it’s inertia. You’ve simply forgotten how to move.

And the bar of soap that’s now the size of a marble, but you’ll use it for One Last Shower… it doesn’t end.

If it looks like there are a few words missing here and there, you may be right. I’m writing this right after, or possibly just before, we’re supposed to change the clocks and I’m so confused I’m scratching my head while I type, leaving only one hand free to type.

Last time we had to push back the clocks, I walked into an empty kitchen late Motzoei Shabos and decided to be industrious and ahead-of-the-game, although it wasn’t the exact time for changing them yet, and I changed the clocks. Then I went to bed. Harry came home an hour later, changed the clocks, and went to bed too. So this particular household gained not one but two extra hours of sleep the next morning. I guess we all needed it and this was G-d’s way of making sure we got it.

The next morning, Sunday morning, I met the neighbor’s little girl outside at 11:00 (new time). I inquired after her health in the usual manner, “Why aren’t you in school – you sick?” She smiled sweetly and replied earnestly, “My mother forgot to change the clock so I missed the bus.” It took me a few minutes to realize why this is so funny, and since the fact that you’re reading this at all shows that you’re not much brighter than I am, and therefore it could take you a few minutes too, and we don’t have that long to wait for you to get it, I’ll explain why it’s so funny. If her mother forgot to push back the clock, then she should have been an hour early for the bus, not an hour late. Oh, mothers, mothers, the lies, the lies, they’ll come back to haunt us in our old age.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed that we harried housewives suffer from an underdeveloped sense of time. Many of us begin cooking Shabbos only to discover that it is Wednesday, not Friday. (Occasionally, just for kicks, my husband asks me in front of company, “Harriet, what day is it?”)

When I was in second grade, my teacher, Rabbi Velvel Konikov, may he live and be well, didn’t like the way we all sped through bentching, when we bentched at all. So to prove to us that bentching only takes three minutes, he had us bentch with a stopwatch once, and he proved to us that it only took three minutes. Well, we HH’s now have to put this method to work for us. For example, many of us neglect to put on our shaitels because “we don’t have the time now.” O.K. Take the clock, one with a second hand. One, two, three, go! See? Less than 20 seconds! Who doesn’t have 20 seconds? Leaving the cereal bowls in the sink till lunch? Time yourself washing out ten cereal bowls and spoons. Two minutes exactly! (And if you leave them for later the Raisin Bran congeals, then it’s eight minutes.)

On the other hand, due to the much-mentioned Crown Heights space shortage, the sense of space of most HH’s is very well developed. As a matter of fact, I would describe my sense of space as painfully acute. If someone leaves a pair of earrings here by mistake, I call them up and tell them I would keep it for them but really, I don’t have the space. It’s like anorexia, where the person truly sees a fat person in the mirror, even though they’re emaciated – I honestly don’t see a spot where someone else’s earrings could possibly be comfortable. 

Speaking of the space shortage, since I came out of the closet on that issue (which wasn’t easy because the closet was stuffed ceiling to floor, of course) lots of ideas from ingenious HH’s have been pouring in. One woman writes, “I screened in my upstairs porch, making it a safe playroom or workroom for the family. I feel like I’ve added a whole room to my house!” Now, I happen to know that this lady’s porch is exactly six feet by six feet, but who’s counting? And you have to live in a shoebox with eight kids, as she does, to appreciate the value of a square inch of space as she does. Speaking of all the things HH’s have in common, we have our mishugaasen and no-one can talk us out of them. We need what we need or we cannot get through the day, period. I, for one, cannot make it through a day without twisties. Please don’t ask me to try. My friend who asked to remain nameless (initials C.B.A.) cannot make it through the day without duct tape. After she made this confession to me on the telephone in the dead of night, I made it a point to take a closer look next time I was at her house. I observed that her house was, indeed, held together by duct tape. There was duct tape on the linoleum, duct tape on the doorbell, duct tape on the garbage can, duct tape on her stroller, duct tape on her eyeglasses. And I didn’t even get upstairs. Now I call her the duct tape queen, a title which she wears proudly atop her carboard crown, held together with you-know-what. 

After so coronating her, I tripped over a case of duct tape in her hallway, almost injuring myself. Well, if my ankle had needed taping we certainly could have taken care of that on the spot. 

A little bit of back-patting to end off with. Did you ever notice? When the baby is cute, with curly hair and pink cheeks, both grandmothers walk around saying, “The baby looks just like my side of the family.” But when the baby is not so cute, say, bald with pimples, rather froglike actually, both sides generously allow the other side to claim the baby’s looks. Well, my mother was overheard saying to someone on the phone, “Can Rishe call you back? She’s working on her magazine.” Her magazine? And Rivki Geisinsky’s mother has been known to say, “My daughter the editor of…” leaving no doubt as to who is singlehandedly responsible for the whole shebang, while simultaneously out in Pittsburgh somewhere, Sheina Herz’s mother says regularly to her friends, “In my daughter’s magazine it says…” “And half the neighborhood calls Naomi Saul as soon as they finish reading the Newsletter with their comments, praise and criticism, as if this is PTA and the Newsletter is Naomi’s child.

I guess this magazine doesn’t look like a frog, after all.

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