Tight living quarters is the answer I give when friends ask me where I learned to sew and cook so well. In a room ten feet by twelve feet, I cuddled with my father on a small sofa and watched the only TV in the apartment as my mother—a tape measure dangling from her neck and straight pins clenched between her lips—sat at her sewing machine and created Easter suits, Halloween costumes, and slipcovers. She folded strips of buckram that interfaced the upper edge of endless yards of antique satin, into miniature accordions until a pair of pinch-pleated drapes resulted. Wet dishtowels were applied over wavy woolen seams and then pressed with steam on the ironing board she would set up in that room. There she spread out dress patterns on the only wall-to-wall carpet in our home. To this day, I cut fabric on my living room floor; sticking pins into the rug’s backing the way my mother did holds the cloth in place.
In that room where I read magazine short stories and my first novels, my mother’s conversations with her soul mate Florence (on the only telephone in the apartment) were but an earshot away. The heartaches of a neglectful husband or a meddlesome in-law were discussed; feelings comforted; solutions established.
In the adjacent kitchen, a Formica topped table placed against the wall provided the sole counter and desk space in the apartment. If I tipped back my chair, I could rest my head on the sink and touch the stove at the same time. I did my homework on that table while, alongside me, my mother dipped veal cutlets into egg and flour mixtures, being careful not to touch my textbooks with her batter-coated fingers, as she helped me analyze poetry. At the other end, my father graded his students’ homework, composed exams, or shined his shoes. I ironed my father’s white handkerchiefs on that table. There, my mother brushed up on her stenography and typing skills as she prepared to reenter the workplace outside of the house.
I have never attended a home economics class. No one ever explained to me the difference between frying and braising, boiling, blanching, and simmering, or that egg whites were stiff enough if they didn’t slide out of the bowl when you turned it upside down. No crash course taught me the necessity of preparing for a day’s work, or the art of diplomacy, or how to be a good friend and parent. I learned it all by osmosis in an apartment where privacy was not a luxury; where the bathroom door held so many layers of white enamel paint it didn’t close properly, let alone lock.
I believe that not having my own space in a time when communication was not a silent operation or individually owned mediums of entertainment not as necessary as a toothbrush, I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons. I believe in protecting children from the isolation of privilege.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.