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Fall 2000
Vol. 63, No. 1

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Tell Me theTruth About 'Home'

Cheryl Neel Mendelson '73 (PhD) and her husband, Edward Mendelson '66, are uncovering new facets to the meaning of "home"--he as the literary executor of the home-loving poet W. H. Auden and she as the author of an unlikely best-seller on the art and science of keeping house.

The Mendelsons at home in their Manhattan apartment, where they have found an overlapping "common life" as scholars and writers.

By Scott Hauser

As Cheryl Mendelson '73 (PhD) walked around the Manhattan apartment she had just moved into with her husband, Edward '66, she felt a sense of place that she hadn't experienced since her family gave up farming when she was 13.

In the living room sat her uncle's grand piano. In the kitchen, thoughts of grandmothers--one Scots-English, one Italian --bubbled through her mind like a simmering soup.

"I walked around the apartment, and I thought, 'I'm in my grandmother's apartment,' " the Rochester-educated philosophy professor says to visitors in that same apartment more than a decade later. "It looked and smelled and tasted like home."

The question was, How to keep it feeling that way?

From such seemingly small moments come ideas for big books: Mendelson's Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, published last year, has been something of a literary phenomenon.

The 884-page volume, based on eight years of research, is a modern version of housekeeping manuals that went out of style about the same time corsets did.

Yet the book has struck a decidedly current cultural chord, selling more than 200,000 copies and launching the "great Cheryl Mendelson debate," as a Time reviewer called it.

That debate often takes the form of "Just who does Cheryl Mendelson think she is to tell women how to clean a house?"

Also See: 'An Honest Man!'
Oh, if only every writer's home were a fortress, able to keep critics at bay, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, a poet who not only knows a lot about the meaning of home, but who has a special place in the Mendelson household.

"Most intelligent people realize that their homes are essential to their well-being," Cheryl says. "But to have someone say so has become unusual. And to have the book taken as being only about housecleaning--well, that was a reaction I didn't expect."

The point, she says, is that there are some rapidly vanishing aspects to having a home "that are culturally deep and that are not easy to get back."

Such poetic sentiments don't often appear in books about how to keep house. But then Home Comforts is not a typical book about keeping house, and the Mendelson home is not one lacking in poetic sentiment.

Edward, Cheryl's husband of 11 years, is a professor of English at Columbia University and the executor of Auden's literary estate (chosen by the poet himself).

A poet who could write, "Spotless rooms / where nothing's left lying about / chill me, so do cups used for ashtrays or smeared / with lipstick: the homes I warm to, / though seldom wealthy, always convey a feeling / of bills being promptly settled / with checks that don't bounce" is right at home (and does make a few appearances) in a book like Home Comforts.

"Auden was very much interested in 'home' in the moral sense rather than the aesthetic sense," Edward explains.

To borrow from the poet again, Cheryl and Edward Mendelson have found an overlapping "common life" as scholars and writers whose work touches--directly and indirectly--on different facets of the meaning of home.

Dubbed the "doyenne of dustbusters" by People magazine, Cheryl is the reigning queen of a new domesticity. It's a role she discovered after following the traditional path of many women of her generation.

Taught since middle school that "modern" women didn't work in the home, rather they established careers for themselves, Cheryl did just that. Having grown up on a farm in the Appalachian region of southwestern Pennsylvania, she moved with her family to Florida when she was 13 years old.

A girl who could milk cows and sew her own dresses found little use for those skills in a part of the country best known for sending rockets into outer space.

"I went from 19th-century, rural Appalachia to the 20th century," Cheryl says. "And I thought, 'I'm not going to get left behind.' "

She became a thoroughly modern woman, throwing herself into her studies and, after graduating from the University of Florida, earned a doctorate in philosophy from Rochester. That was followed by a law degree from Harvard.

She practiced law ("It is actually lawyers who are most familiar with the experience of unintelligent drudgery," she writes in defense of housekeeping) and taught philosophy at Columbia.

Throughout she shunned housework, partly because of lack of time, but partly because keeping house was for homemakers, not career women. Then she had an epiphany: She liked keeping house.

"The book was really a way to relink with what I had left behind at 13," she says.

The book's reception has come as much of a surprise to her as to anyone else.

Not only has it been reviewed widely (by such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post), an unheard of phenomenon for a housekeeping manual, it has stirred an often-visceral controversy that has put Cheryl in the messy center of a profeminist/anti-feminist argument.

As all the reviewers point out, Home Comforts is a compendium of information about homes and how to keep them clean and healthy. With a practical bent, it covers everything (including how to disinfect the kitchen sink) that readers could want to know, and some things of which they may have been blissfully unaware.

Topics and tips range from the arcane --how to arrange a formal place setting (and tackling the question of whether to serve the salad before or after the main course); to the practical--how to read the hieroglyphic symbols on clothing care labels (and when it's OK to disregard them); to the healthful--how long to wash your hands (about the length of time it takes to sing "Yankee Doodle").

(Even the most ardently self-declared "feminists" among the reviewers admit finding that they have incorporated many of the book's helpful tips into their own cleaning routines.)

Included, too, are comprehensive sections on issues of safety for both adults and children, as well as chapters on what kind of insurance homeowners and apartment dwellers should have and what rights and protections for their property they enjoy.

The goal in writing the book, Cheryl says, was to convey a sense of why having and keeping a home is important, a point she was disappointed that many reviewers overlooked.

Home, she says, is not just where the heart is. Having a home to call one's own is the bulwark of modern, democratic, civil society, a legacy of private autonomy and rights first recognized by the Dutch. (Did we mention that she is a professor of philosophy?)

"Home is the place where the flowering of personality takes place and where you have control over your intimate environment," she says. "It gives you the sense of protection and security that are necessary for freedom of thought and freedom of religion and all the other freedoms that democratic institutions preserve.

"When you begin to give up domesticity, when your life no longer demands it, or when you feel you have no time for it, there's a tremendous loss going on," she says. "And there's a whole way of life being sacrificed that has nothing to do with cleaning the floors or keeping mold off the tiles. Those things are really not of enormous concern to me except in so far as there are health concerns to think about."

She also finds irony in the twists and turns that the history of "women's work" has taken.

At the turn of the century, life for most women was backbreaking, and utopian dreams of the day when the burden would be lightened and work more evenly distributed were common.

By the middle of the century, with the advent of refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers, most of the heavy lifting was over.

"Once you no longer have to catch the chicken, kill it, and pluck it before you can eat it, life gets considerably easier," Cheryl says. "You go to the supermarket and buy what my grandmother would have called a 'made chicken.' "

By the 1980s, as the notion of a "career" as a homemaker became as foreign to most women as the idea of having to pluck a chicken, an increasing number of homes began to rely on outside help--usually women, and usually low-paid--to do housework.

Cheryl says she finds it unsettling that a woman's career should often be predicated on having someone who is poorly paid come in and do the cleaning.

But she doesn't argue that all women should stay at home or that all women need to be superheroes to be happy in their homes.

"As long as all members of the household are willing to chip in and do a little, the work can be handled by an average family without enormous sacrifices," she says. "That's making two basic assumptions: One is that the guy helps and the second is that both partners enjoy reasonable work hours.

"I meet very few men nowadays who think they really shouldn't be doing some housework," she says. "But unfortunately women and men don't always work reasonable hours, so people are up against the wall."

Nor does she recognize herself in the reviews that paint her as a germ-phobe who is obsessed with disinfectants. The book, for example, argues against using anti-bacterial soap except in homes where there are infants or people with suppressed

immune systems. Regular soap is as effective at removing bacteria and doesn't carry the risk of building immunity in the germs, she says.

Cheryl also admonishes against being obsessive about cleanliness and recognizes that it's OK to reach the point of saying "Good enough."

"Yes, it's ridiculous to be obsessive-compulsive about cleaning--and I'm not," she says. "You have to look at what matters. My health matters. My comfort matters. And my sense of beauty matters. If cleaning is required to support these things, I'll do it.

"But beyond that, give yourself a break."

In her original concept for the book, Cheryl didn't include the chapters on cleaning. She added them at the insistence of an editor.

She approached the book like a lawyer, which, she says, turned out to be a good background for the task.

"The job of a lawyer is to get specialized knowledge and deliver it to a lay audience and not lose accuracy when you do it," she says.

Plus, "I wasn't intimidated about calling government agencies and asking for information."

And, as a scholar, she was at ease in calling other academics--the chemists and biologists and allergists who are her sources for much of the book's advice.

For much of the eight years the research was under way, the family's apartment (they also have a 9-year-old son, James) was a low-tech testing ground.

"The house always reflected a heavy emphasis on the chapter that was being written at the time," says Edward. "We had great fun buying products."

And they've had some fun comparing notes about their different scholarly pursuits. Auden, for example, although he wrote a highly regarded cycle of 12 poems called "Thanksgiving for a Habit," in which he explores his pleasure at finally finding a place to call home, was, to put it politely, not a great housekeeper.

Yes, the poet would leave stacks of paper lying around the house, Edward admits, but the stories about him exaggerate the average slovenliness of an active mind.

"Superfastidious friends like the Stravinskys were horrified when they visited Auden. But other friends didn't make much of it at all.

"The way he lived was on the extreme messy end of a middle class home, but it was nothing that a little straightening wouldn't have fixed," Edward says. "It just never got straightened."

Auden, as Home Comforts recommends, preferred cozy and comfortable.

"There were lots of places he could stay when he traveled but he always chose the coziest," Edward says.

Edward and Cheryl, whose time at Rochester did not overlap, were introduced by mutual friends at a party in 1989. They were married six months later, to the day.

And they had to work out their own home comforts. Edward, for example, admits to having been obsessed about the way a patterned bedspread lined up with the edge of the mattress. It had to be just so.

Before long, Cheryl had convinced him the bedspread was one of the areas he could say "Good enough" about.

"Within six months, it looked like a two-year-old had made the bed," Cheryl chides.

Scott Hauser is associate editor of Rochester Review.

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