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Credit: Bijou Karman
personal essay

Learning to See the Beauty in My Mother’s Chore List

published Mar 12, 2021
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My mother, Lynne, has always been a strong advocate for women’s rights and education. The second-oldest of four siblings, she grew up in the industrial city of Pontiac, Michigan. She earned her MBA while raising two children and working full-time, proving what women, especially Black women, can accomplish despite the odds. And despite her incredibly limited free time, her house was always spotless — especially the kitchen.

The kitchen had to be in peak condition because it was always on display and in use. When you enter the foyer of our home, you see our living room first — a space filled with artwork, family photos, and two comfy couches. However, anyone entering the Mills household (family, friend, or frenemy) never walked straight into the living room: Nope, it was always the kitchen. Brightly lit and cozied up with a round table and neutral color palette, the kitchen is where everything happened.

As is the case in many Black households, Saturday mornings did not require an alarm. The radio blasted Mom’s favorites — Anita Baker, Toni Braxton, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye — and we knew what time it was. Time to get up and get to work. Having already been up for a couple of hours, she would feed my brother and me a quick breakfast of eggs, bacon, and biscuits. If she had a gathering scheduled for that night, though, we had to make it extra snappy with our choice of cereal. 

My mother liked to play hostess on Saturday evenings in her freshly cleaned house. Just like her mother, my Nana, she loved having people over, hearing them gush over her wine and meal selections, asking how my brother and I were doing in school, and, of course, gossiping about the latest news in our family and associate circles. These things seemed to give her a satisfaction that, in my childhood, I couldn’t quite appreciate. All I knew was that I was often the one tasked with the Real Work (scrubbing, organizing, mopping), while my brother rushed through the most basic chores (putting dishes in the sink, taking out the trash) before playing video games or heading over to a friend’s house.

My mother had a habit of telling me that “the kitchen was my responsibility,” but I resented the notion. Why was it a woman’s responsibility to earn her keep, to make her space spotless for others to come in and enjoy, but never contribute? How could my mother, who was both beautiful and accomplished, feel that this was the way? 

Having a clean kitchen, wasn’t about being the perfect mother, wife, or even hostess. It was about maintaining peace and order for when the outside world was too chaotic.

Over time though, my resentment gave way to the things I appreciated above all else: knowledge and love. While doing the dishes (rinse then load), I learned the lyrics to my mother’s favorite songs, and began to discover that she liked to dance. We organized the cabinets (special-occasion glasses over here, casual glasses over there) as she told me stories of living through the Detroit Riots and the Civil Rights Movement. As we debated whether Pine-Sol or Fabuloso cleaned the floors better, I really learned what made my mother tick: a passion for art, a penchant for helping others, and a drive to experience a life richer than what was expected of her. She also loved being able to open our home to friends and family that needed refuge: students who needed their resumes polished, coworkers who needed life guidance, and cousins who needed time away from the pressures of their own families. Sitting them down at our glass table and pouring them a cup of hot tea or a glass of lemonade wasn’t about showing off — it was about showing them that she cared. 

Having a clean home, and especially a clean kitchen, wasn’t about being a perfect mother, wife, or even hostess: It was about maintaining peace and order for when the outside world was too chaotic. It was the place where we celebrated our wins, grieved our losses, and collaborated on all our family’s big decisions. Where we could sit with people from outside our family. The place where we metaphorically and literally laid it all out on the table. Our kitchen was the place where we truly bonded as a family — where we came to argue, to laugh, and, most importantly, to love and heal. 

Now that I have my own space, I find that I’ve adopted my mother’s penchant for keeping things “casually lived in.” In pre-pandemic days, I loved having friends over for movie/game nights, communing over the trials and triumphs of life. Everything seems better with friends, food, and fun and, like my mom, I’ve found solace in keeping my space a reflection of that — a clean and always-ready kitchen with a round table, plenty of snacks, and, of course, wine. When I’m not hosting, the kitchen is where I journal, grade papers, and conquer my TBR pile.

I no longer see a chore list as a punishment or exercise in control, but rather as a self-made guide to one’s sense of order and productivity.

My mom says that “physical space reflects mental space,” and having been diagnosed with a couple of mental disorders myself, I’ve found that to be more or less true. I no longer see the chore list as a punishment or exercise in control, but rather as a guide for one’s sense of order and productivity. Does everything on the list get done? Nah. Do I feel bad about it? Nope. In the end, I’ve developed my own stride, and it works — just like my mom always intended. 

Twenty years have gone by, and while many upgrades have happened to my family’s kitchen (steel appliances, an electric stove, and an Alexa that doesn’t quite do what she’s told), the soul of the space remains the same. My mother always greets me with a hug and something to drink. Anita, Marvin, or Stevie are playing on the radio, and the dishwasher is humming after she’s finally cajoled my father into doing his (very small) part. What used to bring me anxiety and frustration now brings me peace and joy — at their house and at my own.