vendredi 15 octobre 2010

Women's work


The ivy burns


"That's no work for a woman," my elderly Portuguese neighbor stated firmly.

Her companion, a neighbor from her end of the street nodded, or smiled, in something vaguely resembling assent, and I felt as though I should stop immediately what I was doing and go take a shower and put on a dress. A little powder and lipstick.

Maria had told me this the day before, when she had first been on her way up the lane to collect walnuts from the tree in her garden, bordering the fields beyond our bottom garden and the lane. I considered whether she said this with disapprobation or sympathy, but since my husband was not next to me to defend himself in the latter case (or the former), I decided it was up to my to stand up for my honor, which was possibly, almost certainly, as much in question as his own. I chose to smile and reply with alarming candidness.

"Oui, mais mon mari --" I thought of him, working at the hospital, and myself at home, doing as I pleased and what needed to be done by someone, "il a autres choses à faire."

Her companion smiled, and nodded. I thought I had found an ally, someone who understood that someone had to earn a living around here, but I thought I'd add for good measure and to make sure my case was plead, "Quelqu'un doit travailler pour gagner la vie, et un jardinier pour faire ce travail, ben, c'est cher," and suddenly worried that I had brought us too low in their estimation, I hastened to add, "et puis, ils ne font souvent pas ni aussi bien que soi ni comme on veut." I finished with a brilliant smile and brandished my long handled pruning shears to go at the seriously overgrown ivy again.

Maria did not look convinced and continued to grumble amiably enough under her breath about work "fitting a woman" and this being "too much for a woman."

Later, my husband heard the incident and said, "Elles ne te connaissent pas évidemment."

I am not certain that that would have helped my image any more, either.

And was that what I was expecting when I left Barnard and the Ivy League with my diplomas all those years ago, my feminism shining, my certitude in my brilliant future even more radiant, until it came time to look for a first job, anyway, to arrive in this ivy jungle, where I prune and burn the garden's excess growth for my doctor husband, raise my puppies and care for my animals, bury even the wild ones who come here to die, and penning what amounts to a public journal to keep myself from wandering past the irretrievable edge?

He tells me, "Do whatever you like. All I ask is that you be content in return with what I can earn, and that you be happy," and he means it honestly, but he is happiest when I am involved with and kind to his plentiful offspring.

I can tell you about this woman's work, but I can also tell you about Maria's, a woman who spent her life tending to her neighbors' housecleaning and ironing for small pay, caring for her husband and children for none, and mourning the one who lay as peacefully before her eyes on the pavement, his school bag knocked from his small arms, as he had only moments before in his bed, hit by a car while he waited for the school bus to come.

I imagined I would hire someone like Maria to do the woman's work, while I went to the office, kissing my children good-bye and leaving detailed and enlightened instructions for their excellent care so that I could do the same at the office to get office towers and museums, airports and schools, or at least homes, built. Would she have looked at me disapprovingly for that, too? Was my life really so much harder in her eyes, cutting out all that overgrown ivy and dragging it to a monstrously large pile, than her own? What is the difference between a constantly replenishing mountain of someone else's laundry and your own to iron and a constantly replenishing mountain of ivy to cut back, and your own mountain of laundry to do, as well?

What, Maria, is a woman's work?

All the ivy is on the burning pile, which is sending a thick column of smoke into the drizzly October sky. The season to burn has arrived, just in time, but someone took half of what I had piled at the corner of the field until the time to burn came. I cannot imagine why, nor that it was from kindness, unless the village caretaker had room in his truck and more than a little pity for me, knowing my hands are full with a new puppy.

Or maybe Maria told him to help "cette femme qui fait le travail d'un homme, le travail que son mari devrait faire" and went on her way to collect her walnuts the tree in her garden gives.
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