Authors: Erin Bried
AND ALL GRANDMOTHERS EVERYWHERE
More than a decade ago, I landed my dream job at Condé Nast, a world-renowned magazine publisher. On my first day of work, I arrived at the glamorous headquarters, then located on Madison Avenue, in my navy Payless pumps and my matching navy Casual Corner suit, which, for me, a twenty-two-year-old from semirural Pennsylvania, was high fashion. As a rover, or in-house temp, I filled in for the absent assistants of executives and senior editors of magazines, including
. My first stop: the office of a certain big shot. When, with a trembling hand, I answered his phone for the first time, there was a woman with a thick Somalian accent on the other end. “This is Iman,” she said. Throughout that day, I heard myself saying things like, “Princess Marie Chantal of Greece is on the line” and “A woman named Liz Smith asked that you call her. She didn’t say where she was from.” After lunch, my boss got a haircut by a stylist so famous he has his own line of shampoo. After work, he went to work out. I know this because I called my first-ever black car to take him to the gym. And so began my life in New York City.
Now, I’m the senior staff writer at
magazine, and my stories are read by more than six million women every month. I travel all over the country, sometimes even farther, to interview the celebrities who appear on our cover, and as a result, I’ve honed a very specific set of skills: namely, hailing cabs and ordering room service. At the photo shoots, where I spend many of my days watching the stars be photographed, there are always caterers, stylists, manicurists, even tailors, who are always happy to make a quick hem or repair any loose buttons. On the road, everything in life seems to be taken care of by other people.
And then I come home.
I recently invited some friends over for a dinner party, and for dessert I decided to do something extra special—make a strawberry-rhubarb pie. After searching for rhubarb high and low in just about every grocery store in Brooklyn, I was so happy and relieved when I finally found a bunch. It wasn’t great-looking stuff—it was much thinner, redder, and leafier than I’d remembered it being—but it would do, I thought. You can’t go wrong with pie. When I got it home, I followed the recipe carefully. I snipped off the leaves, chopped up the pencil-thin red stems, and tossed them into the pie with sugar, flour, and sliced berries. After I baked it to a perfect golden brown, I carried it to the table. My friends were so impressed. “Who makes pie these days?” they marveled. “I don’t even know how to make a pie!” one confessed. I was so proud. Beaming, really. And then they each took a bite. That’s when the compliments stopped. Silence. Crickets. A few sideways glances and lots of polite chewing-in-slow-motion. What a strange reaction to my delicious dessert, I thought. Then I tasted it, expecting a pink, sweet-tart sensation. Instead, I got a mouthful of green bitterness. It tasted like the smell of freshly cut grass. Mortified, I told my friends to stop eating. Clearly, I’d made a huge mistake. My enduring guests launched into a kindhearted interrogation, and together we discovered my error. It turns out that I’d accidentally bought Swiss chard instead of rhubarb, and I’d made the pie using the vegetable’s stems, the part you normally throw away.
That’s when it hit me: When I was a child, I used to help my grandmother clip rhubarb out of the garden; now, as an adult, I can’t even identify the vegetable in the grocery store. Funny, yes, but also completely humiliating. When did I lose my ability to take care of myself?
The more I think about it, the less self-sufficient I realize I’ve become: It’s been so long since I’ve done my own laundry that I can no longer remember if you wash colors in hot or cold. If I get pills on a sweater, I give it away. My breakfasts often come in bar form. My dinners usually come inside one of two things: a pizza box or a flour tortilla. I’ve killed more plants than I care to admit. And I’ve never once balanced my checkbook, much less devised a household budget.
What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism. Why do for ourselves, we shrug, when we can pay someone else to do it for us?
That’s all begun to change.
We have now entered what experts are calling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Suddenly, not knowing how to cook my own meals, care for my own house, iron my own shirts, even make my own entertainment (hello, cable!) seems not only disempowering, but also downright irresponsible. That’s why I decided to do something about it. First step in moving forward: looking back.
My maternal grandfather died in 1956, leaving my late grandmother Hilda McFall to raise her two children alone. A feminist and activist, she soon became one of the first women elected to county office. As a Juilliard-educated pianist, she also supplemented her income by teaching lessons and playing in the theater. She kept her house immaculate, her beds made, her bathroom neat, and her lawn manicured. She always had a fresh pitcher of iced tea in the fridge and something delicious, like pasties or saffron buns, in the oven. She had close friends with whom she played cards into the night. Even though money was tight, she always managed to give each of her five grandchildren a crisp dollar at every visit and $50 every Christmas. She shopped locally and walked wherever she could, long before being green was a marketing concept. She was strong. She was prudent. And, above all, she was happy.
When I think about her life now, I’m truly awestruck, and I can think of no better role model for these tough times than our grandmothers, particularly those who survived the Great Depression. All grandmothers have stories about the clever, sometimes surprising, things they did to get by. They baked their own bread to save dough. They grew their own vegetables to feed their families. They wore their clothes well, until they wore them out. They took care of their neighbors and knew when to ask for help. They managed to keep romance alive without going out to fancy restaurants.
Since my own grandmothers are no longer alive, I reached out to others from all around the country to see what I could learn. (You can read more about them in the next section.) They told me stories about making do, helping others, finding fun, and even falling in love. As I was listening to each of them, I knew I was not only learning practical wisdom, like how to save money, live green, and take better care of myself and my family, but I was also collecting important stories, some of which have never been told before and all of which will soon disappear. Their stories are ones we need to remember.
If you are lucky enough to have your grandmother with you, sit and talk with her sometime. Ask her big questions, like what’s the secret to a happy marriage, and little ones, like when was the first time she put on lipstick. Ask her nice questions, like what she did for fun, and cheeky questions, like if her father ever made whiskey in the basement (and if she ever snuck a taste). Ask her how she managed. Or just ask her to tell you a story, any story. I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you’ll find out. If you no longer have your grandmother by your side, it’s my hope that through this book, you’ll now have the spirit of her next to you, offering you warm encouragement and gently guiding you through essential life tasks that you may have forgotten (or never even learned in the first place). I hope it will offer you calm, comfort, and, above all, confidence.