It didn't rest and neither did I. Daily I stood in the kitchen, seeding tomatoes, slicing cucumbers, chopping onions, dicing green peppers, salting them down, boiling them up, spooning them into the sterile jars that waited like baby birds, mouths gaping, to be filled. Daily the house was redolent of onion and spices, and my mind was redolent with memories of my mother and grandmother bottling peaches and pears. Daily the hot-water canner steamed on the stove top, lid rattling and jars clanking, as noisy as a freight train. Usually, all four stove burners were going simultaneously: one for the canner, another for sterilizing the lids and metal bands, a third for sterilizing jars and a fourth for cooking the chili sauce or pickle brine. I savored the irony of the gardener's life: In winter, when canning would be a cozy operation, filling the chilly kitchen with welcome warmth, the garden produces naught, but in summer, when every extra degree of heat adds to the day's burdens, the garden overflows.
As my days became a constant round of slicing and dicing, brining and whining, I complained that there must be better things to do with my time. There were books to read, journals to fill, woodwork to paint, mountains to climb, but I could do none of that, awash as I was in a sea of tomatoes and cucumbers, going down for the third time. I told family and friends that I was "sinking into domesticity," not certain if I was joking or not, half-afraid that I would sink out of sight.
That was my deepest fear: drowning in that all-too-tempting, all-too-natural, all-too-easy role. Spending my days in the kitchen and my evenings poring over cookbooks, I was catapulted backward in time to the beginning of my first marriage 20 years before, when a really good recipe for ground beef was more precious than gold fillings and making a perfect souffle seemed more important than achieving peace in our time. In those days, I fully agreed with Esther Meynell that "women express themselves in the colour of their curtains, the placing of a table or a bowl of flowers." Scrubbing, dusting, sewing, baking, I was the perfect little wife in her perfect little life. My then-father-in-law congratulated my husband on the fact that I had taken to homemaking like a duck to water. He meant it as a compliment. Even more amazing, I regarded it as one.
Sometimes I want to shake her by the shoulders, that young wife so eager to please, so devoted to her kitchen and her husband, but I should be kinder. That was all she had. Only when chopping fresh herbs, flouring a chicken breast, kneading dough, dicing onions, preparing a roux, did she feel any confidence in herself or her abilities. Only when praised for the meal on the table did she feel a sense of worth. Asked to say one positive thing about herself, it was always "I'm a good cook."
THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT EVENTUALLY CAME ALONG AND TAUGHT ME TO QUESTION ALL THE COMPLIMENTS and the cooking, the perfection and the tininess of the goals that made perfection possible. Look, it said, there are other, more interesting lives you can lead. It suggested that, contrary to Meynell, perhaps there could be (or already had been!) a female Bach of Beethoven, a Velasquez in petticoats. Once stated clearly and plainly, these truths seemed self-evident. So why, I wondered now, was I spending every free moment in the kitchen? I hadn't subscribed to Ms. magazine for 10 years only to end up sweating over kettles of boiling water. Surely there was something more important to do than drag a hose around the yard and pack tomatoes into jars.
About that time, I found a bird's nest on the driveway. Gusty winds had evidently knocked it out of the palm tree. The nest had not been used yet--there were no droppings inside nor any broken eggs on the ground. It was bowl-shaped, about the size of a bread-and-butter plate, with an inner hollow not much wider than a teacup. The outer part was a thick swirl of green weeds--the upper stems of pepper grass, shepherd's purse and London rocket--roughly twined together. Inside this was a thick layer of woolly plant material--probably cudweed--again, the upper stems only. Very fine grass fibers pressed flat made a soft lining, and the innermost layer of all, only partly completed, was thistledown.
Out of curiosity, I showed it to my cat. She recognized it as something more than a clump of weeds and tugged and worried the outer layer with her teeth until I took the nest away. I couldn't let her destroy it because suddenly I, too, recognized it as something more. Standing there in the driveway with a partly finished bird's nest in my hand, I understood that we humans are animals and the need for a home is built into our psyches.
Convinced that nothing of value could come out of the kitchen, I had for some years turned my back on all the womanly tasks I'd learned and loved as a teen-ager--sewing, decorating, cooking--and with what results? The need to eat didn't go away simply because I decided I didn't like to cook. The need for a place to live didn't disappear just because I wouldn't spend time making curtains and dusting knickknacks. The problem is achieving a balance.
I learned a lot that summer of the tomatoes. I learned that I never want to grow so many tomatoes again. I learned that I wouldn't drown in domesticity; I would float. I learned that homemaking is literally the creation of a home with all that implies about renewal and comfort and protection. And I learned that feminists need homes, too.