The Woman in the Silver Frame
Household wisdom from a lady's maid
I keep a photo of a woman on my desk. In the black and white photo, she is dressed in clothes from the turn of the 20th century, a sheer black blouse over a white muslin top. The silver frame has never tarnished, even after 12 years in Bali's tropical humidity. The woman was my great-grandmother. She died long before I was born, long before my mother had even met my father. I have never spoken to her, or seen her living face, but she has shaped my habits.
I remember my mother telling me stories about her grandmother. She worked as a lady's maid in England before her marriage. Being in service in those days (before two wars) meant conserving your energy and constantly thinking how to use your time as efficiently as possible. My great-grandmother’s most important rule — and she kept this until the end of her life — was that if you were going from one room to another, always carry something with you. This might be an item you knew you were going to need elsewhere, that you might require later —even the next day in a different part of the house — or something you would always need to use elsewhere. For example, if hairbrushes had just been cleaned and you were going near the bedroom, you detoured slightly and returned them so you didn't need to make a separate trip later in the day. Clearly being in service involved a lot of predicting, but often it was common sense. A lady's maid — or anyone running a busy household, a couple, or someone living on their own — usually follow a predictable routine. You save so much time and energy by just taking a few minutes to think about what will be needed where and minimizing the steps you need to take (literally) to make sure everything will be where you want in when you will need it. You’re predicting your own future, basically, which is surprisingly repetitive.
When I first started following my great-grandmother’s advice, I felt as if I would be expending even more time and energy than I normally do. It's amazing, when you think of it, how much housework actually involves moving things around. Taking the towels off the line when they're dry and stacking them in the bathroom, taking out the compost, picking up discarded clothes and making sure they're in the laundry basket, bringing dishes and cups back to the kitchen.
After a while, I realized that the wisdom of a lady's maid was actually making my life easier. I don't have to make a final sweep of the house at night because clothes went into the basket after the shower, dishes were returned when I got a bedtime glass of water and books were put away on the shelves when I walked through the living room on my way to make dinner. I was actually saving time and energy (and mind space).
I now use less time and energy to do housework as things magically get back to where they live with minimal effort. The practice is also very mindful — you need to stay conscious at all times about moving through your space.
I decided to extend my greaty’s wisdom to clearing out clutter. What if, I thought, I carried one item out of the house every time I left? I make a game of it. Every time I’m about to leave, I think of the route I will take and choose a discarded or unwanted item to bring with me that I can leave somewhere along that route. A book or mug to give to a friend, unwanted clothes to the dumpster in front of the charity shop, my daughter’s forgotten purse to her other house and so on.
About my great-grandmother, I know only what my mother told me. She left service to marry a widower, a man much older than her, who already had one teenage daughter. She must have married for love because she agreed to go out to Australia with him, leaving behind England, the life she knew and her family. In Australia, my great-grandfather, a cabinetmaker, helped to build the new city of Newcastle and my great-grandmother lived in a massive, canvas tent in the bush — with a wooden floor and raised up on sturdy stilts — and raised two children there. She washed, cleaned, swept, mended, cooked for a group of labourers once a day and taught my grandmother and great-uncle their letters and numbers. The photo on my desk was probably taken to send home to family or a friend. The sheer dress seems better suited to tropical Brisbane, not the cold North of England. I can see her there in the bush, carrying something every time she left the tent for the outside kitchen or bringing something back when she went to use the outdoor dunny, still practicing the rules she’d learned in a great house far over the sea, efficient, saving time and energy by following one simple rule. If you leave a room, always carry something with you.