I have always been a Mary and not much of a Martha. This is not so much a matter of theology as it is a matter of biology. As a babe barely out of my mother’s womb, I preferred the library to the laundry room. As a toddler my favorite toys were blocks and rocks – in that order – not pots and pans. As a grade schooler, the household chore I excelled at most was getting out of household chores. In high school, rather than dust the bookshelves I would just sit down and read the books. My mom’s favorite magazines were Family Circle and The Lady’s Home Journal. I preferred my dad’s Scientific American and Journal of the American Medical Association. (Not that I could understand either, but I liked the pictures!) The domestic arts are just not part of my DNA. And now all grown up — my house and my home — will never quite qualify for that “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”.
Good Housekeeping of course has been the magazine of choice for homemakers since it was first published in 1885. Recently while plowing through boxes of books, I discovered two vintage issues: October 1953 and March 1957. Each is nearly 300 pages and a bargain at 35 cents. The contents are packed tight with domestic delights. Featured articles include: “Hostess with the Mostest”; “Mother is a Lady”; “Man Talk”; and the “How Did We Ever Get Along without Cellophane Tape?” Each issue has thirteen categories covering every conceivable domestic discipline: Fashion; Needlework and Sewing; Medicine and Health; Bureau and Chemical Laboratory (Don’t ask! I don’t know!); Textile Laboratory; Decorating and Building; Beauty; Teenagers; Children’s Corner; Food; Appliance and Home Care; and Automobiles. Apparently the 1950’s iconic mom could change a tire just as expertly as she could change a diaper.
One issue has a ten page “Hotdog Cookbook”. The other has the “Wisconsin Reducing Diet” based on cheese.
But best of all are the ads – the advertisements for every household, cooking, cleaning and beauty item under the sun.
“I wash 1400 pounds of laundry a year…but I’m proud of my pretty hands.” Jergen’s Lotion only 10 cents plus tax. (Transfigured just like new!)
“Only the Sunbeam toasts with Radiant Control…that gives the same UNIFORM TOAST….Bread lowers itself automatically…Toast raises itself silently.” (Resurrection Bread!)
“Palmolive Soap is 100% Mild to Guard that Schoolgirl Complexion Look!” (Baptized like a newborn babe!)
“Crisco ends pie crust failure… Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (Baptism by ordeal!)
It is comforting to imagine June Cleaver — of Leave it to Beaver — in her shirt-waist dress, pearls and pumps — her house neat and tidy as a pin and nary a hair out of place. June Cleaver, the iconic reincarnation of St Martha of Bethany. Manic Martha, my mom’s patron saint.
Growing up at 5408 24th Avenue, we measured my mother’s madness in baskets of laundry, unmade beds and sinks full of dirty dishes. On the high side, our house was a House Beautiful. On the low side our home was definitely in need of repair. Raising a family of six kids in the suburbs with a workaholic doctor for a husband would make just about anybody crazy. But my mom — was biologically crazy — bipolar crazy. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would vacuum less or she would vacuum more. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would polish less or she would polish more. As my mom’s moods would swing and sway, she would cook less or she would cook more.
And this is how we kept score. Each moody morning we’d monitor my mom like an incoming storm. Is she cloudy and dark or clear and bright? Was she up past midnight or did she sleep ‘til noon? Does she still have on her pajamas or is she dressed and pressed and ready to go? Is she making breakfast or do we have to make our own? Is she laughing and talking or is she irritable and sad?
It scared me as a child — not knowing what each day would bring. But it scared me even more that I might grow up to be her- manic-depressive Martha extraordinaire.
So I became a Mary — a quite contrary one. My mom loved to cook. Not me. My mom loved to shop. Not me. My mom loved fashion. Not me. My mom loved to decorate. Not me. My mom loved to clean. Not me. My mom loved to collect stuff. Not me. My mom loved to plant stuff. Not me. My mom was definitely a Martha. I was decidedly a Mary. Or at least so I thought. Until the day…
I was magically transformed into Martha Stewart on Speed. The magic potion was a decidedly delicious anti-depressant cocktail. It’s counter-intuitive but chemically speaking these little pills can push the “max button” on the bipolar blender. Maximum speed. Maximum energy. Maximum ways to mix and match a million little things. So I stayed up nights hanging pictures on my walls, turning sheets into window treatments, and spice racks into towel racks. I created collages and decorated bulletin boards. I framed post cards; I potted plants; I arranged and rearranged knickknacks and whatnots. (I even dusted them!) I alphabetized my bookshelves and cleaned out my closets. I fluffed pillows already fluffed. I vacuumed floors already vacuumed. I even manically made my bed over and over. But I did not sleep in it, at least not very much. But oversleep in it I did — once this my house of cards came crashing down.
“Good Housekeeping” is actually a great guidebook to the bipolar brain. A great barometer indeed. In therapeutic language it’s called monitoring your “ADLs” – Activities of Daily Life. Laundry. Housework. Yard work. Grocery shopping. Walking the dog. Cooking. Cleaning. Running Errands. Taking out the trash. Making meals. Doing dishes. Scrubbing bathrooms. Mopping floors. Checking the mail. Paying bills. How well we attend to our daily chores attests to the state of our health and wholeness. Keeping house is literally about keeping healthy. When a loved one does way too little housekeeping or way too much, it’s time to be concerned. It’s time for a loving conversation to see what’s really going on. It may be time to talk with a counselor. Time to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. No, you are not crazy. It’s just the right thing to do.
Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha — biblically speaking — keeps our houses in order. Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha brings peace and balance to addled brains – bipolar and not.
If you don’t believe me, remember it is Jesus who says so. And Jesus said so right there in Martha’s living room…while Martha fussed in the kitchen and Mary listened at his feet. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing is needful; Mary has chosen the better part; and it will not be taken away….” Luke 10:38-41
Good Housekeeping, a blessing in disguise!