In Our COVID World, One Woman Polishes Mid-century Housekeeping Skills to a
21st-century Sheen

Real housewife.

  • Category
    Homes, People
  • Written by
    Jane Ulman
  • Illustrated by
    Nikki Smith

“How’s it going?” a friend asked me recently.

“It’s going backwards,” I said. “COVID-19 has turned me into a 1950s housewife.”

You won’t find me twirling in my turquoise dream kitchen, decked out in pearls and high heels, a ruffled apron protecting my crisp shirtwaist dress, while a pot roast simmers in the oven and a lime Jell-O mold chills in the fridge.

But you could find me clad in my T-shirt, jeans, and deep green Crocs tackling the soap scum on our shower door, easing my umpteenth bundle of dirty clothes into the front-loader, or perusing the internet for yet another new veggie burger recipe.

My husband, Larry, and I have been on lockdown since mid-March, along with one of our millennial sons who was relocating back to LA when the pandemic struck. Except for walking every day and occasionally embarking on no-contact outdoor errands, we haven’t left home. And no one, except for a couple essential workers—our plumber, for example—has set foot inside. Even our other three sons, their spouses/girlfriend and our three granddaughters visit al fresco only.

We’re on our own. Larry has dubbed me CEO of the house, in the manner of 50s sitcom star Donna Reed, and I’ve designated him Chief of Shipping and Receiving, Building and Grounds, and Health and Safety. We’re a team of equals. In other words, there’s no societal mandate to greet him with an ice-cold gin and tonic, along with his slippers, when he returns from work—and not only because leaving his office these days means walking out of our youngest son’s former bedroom.

The life of a full-time hausfrau is not without its educational perks. I’ve learned that apples emit an ethylene gas that can decompose other fruits and vegetables and need to be separated. I’ve learned that I prefer my microfiber mop—don’t wash the microfiber pads with cotton; the lint will clog the microfibers—to the misnamed Wonder Mop. And I’ve learned that snickerdoodles can be made with various combinations of vegetable shortening and/or butter and brown and/or white sugar, clearly depending on what’s in my cupboard. I’ve also discovered a recipe for pumpkin snickerdoodles, which I’ve calendared as an October surprise for our cookie-loving family.

All this cleaning, cooking and laundry has an emotional bonus. The results, while too short-lived, are surprisingly gratifying.

More notably, I have a new respect and appreciation for the degree of hard work, which is monotonous and never-ending, that housework entails. And for the essential workers who take on these and similar low-paying jobs. I worry about those workers who have been fired or furloughed and who are struggling financially. And those who have contracted the virus.

Going forward, I see my current calling as a ’50s housewife, accompanied by what I hope is the acuity of a 21st-century woman, as preparation for what clearly, post-COVID-19, will be one of the greatest challenges ever faced by our world.

“If you want to change the world, start with yourself,” Mahatma Gandhi said. For me, tending to my own schmutz is a first step.

Writer and latter-day ’50s housewife Jane Ulman and her husband, Larry—who in no way resembles or assumes the role of a ’50s husband—live in Encino.