Because of the far flung locations of our interview subjects, it is rare for me to conduct an interview for the Mormon Women Project in person. But yesterday I had the privilege of doing two in-person interviews: one with Daryl Hoole and the other with Ann Romney. It was impactful day for me, partly because of the similar themes I extrapolated from two seemingly very different women.
Daryl Hoole is the 80-plus year old author of The Art of Homemaking, the 1963 definitive how-to manual of Mormon home culture. The book had a shelf life at Deseret Book of 25 years, and Sister Hoole spoke at BYU’s Education Week for 40 years, in addition to raising eight children and serving three missions. She lives just across the street from a Salt Lake playground I frequent with my children, and I wondered as I drove up how many times I had driven by her unassuming home which thousands of women have toured over the past fifty years.
Sister Hoole had a cozy fire burning in the small but immaculate living room. I believe Jane Austen would have called it “well-appointed.” Considering her husband passed away two weeks ago, I was touched by her generosity to spend her morning with me, telling me about the origins of her book (and five others that followed it) and her life as a teacher, lecturer, mother and expert in the realm of home management and organization. In many ways, Sister Hoole reminded me of my own mother, who, although far from her suburban upbringing both literally and figuratively in our New York City apartment, used many of the phrases that slipped off Sister Hoole’s tongue so easily: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” “Don’t put things down, put them away.” “Have a system, not a struggle.” My father took my mother’s cleanliness to the next level: I wasn’t allowed to put trash in any of the bedroom wastebaskets (they were hand needlepointed and for decoration only), and my closet door must remained closed at all times, etc. I remember distinctly as a child having a family friend plop on the perfectly plumped pillows of our chintz couch and exclaiming, “It’s like a museum in here! I can’t touch a thing!” As much as I rolled my eyes at my dad’s fastidious plumping, it made me mad that this guest didn’t see the beautiful haven my parents had created in our two-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
It was this same appreciation for a deliberate respect for things that made my visit to Sister Hoole’s home nostalgic for me. As she led me around her home, opening random drawers and filing cabinets so I could admire the order, I was drawn back to the best parts of my childhood where a respect for beauty and order in our small space was one of a handful of principles that my parents actually agreed upon. My mother can, even today, give tours of her drawers and closets. I have the same reaction to well-ordered homes as I do to opera: they are hallmarks of the happiest parts of my childhood.
With three young children at home and a full time job, my own home doesn’t boast well organized drawers and closets, and when I came home from Sister Hoole’s I cleaned out the books and magazines collecting under my bed and several other piles of clutter that have been gathering dust. But what I most took away from my morning at Sister Hoole’s was her belief that a well-ordered home gives us as parents the ability to free our emotional and physical space to be more present with and dedicated to our children. While cleanliness for me in my home growing up sometimes became a point of contention with my father especially – leaving my closet door open was an act of rebellion – I too believe in this principle and act on it to the best of my ability, considering I live with four other people and have limited time. Sister Hoole reminded me as a mother that acts of cleaning, ordering, and the seeming drudgery of domestic life can actually be sacraments in the building of an eternal family. While the “art of homemaking” may have changed drastically in the past fifty years, I can, in my own sphere, in my own way and with the time I have, act on those principles that allowed Sister Hoole to effectively raise her own eight children and many of our Mormon foremothers to be admirable makers of the home.
It was poignant to contrast my conversation in Sister Hoole’s intimate living room with my interview with Ann Romney later in the day. Having arrived early to a Deseret Book conference room with my pre-vetted questions, I was aware of the formality of the occasion as she arrived with her entourage and the timer marking my time with her started. I was an official stop on her book tour to promote The Romney Family Table, recently published through Deseret Book. But even though she is one of the most widely recognized mothers in America, my conversation with Sister Romney shared the same warmth about creating a welcoming and nurturing home as my conversation with Sister Hoole. Keeping a family close takes time and planning and organization, Sister Romney explained, and the benefits of a well-organized home take decades to realize. Although there were no drawers to peek in, she opened herself to me figuratively as she shared challenging moments she’s had with her children, the uncertainty she felt as a mother and her amazement as her raucous, naughty little boys have grown to men.
Although their books are fifty years apart, each is a testament to the strength of the homemaking culture among the Mormon people. I appreciated the reminder yesterday of the very best that comes out of that culture: women who take great pride in the time-consuming pursuit of creating a sacred space for the development of the souls in their care. Even though my personality, talents and choices mean I spend my time differently from these women and believe my different strengths will also contribute richly in the raising of my children, I am grateful to have examples like these women who inspire me to consider homemaking in ways that may not come naturally or easily to me. I’ll still make dinner five minutes before we sit down at the kitchen counter and I won’t let anyone look in my closets, but I am inspired to stretch a little by people who treasure the sacred space of home.
What I Am Watching:
The Wrong Mans, a new BBC comedy series on Hulu. I gave this a try because I saw the star and writer, James Corden, on Broadway last summer in One Man, Two Guvnors. He was unforgetable as an improvising physical comedian, and he was staying in my apartment building so I had a chance to visit with him in the lobby one night. This show doesn't show off his improv skills like the live performance did, but it's still worth watching on the treadmill.