Helpless, or living the life of Riley?


by Frances Edstrom

When I first saw the movie Gone With the Wind, it amazed me that women could be so helpless that they couldn’t even dress themselves or get themselves a glass of water.

But here I am. Helpless. And it’s amazing how quickly one gets used to being waited on. No wonder people like being rich.

But still…I can’t even get out of bed by myself. That’s going a little too far, although according to books I have read, throughout history royal women have been waited upon from the moment they open their eyes in the morning until they close them at night.

When we’ve toured castles and manor houses in Europe (and some in the U.S.), the working areas of the house are far, far from the living areas of the master and family. They are grim, dark and dank whereas the master lives surrounded by lightness and beauty, with no sign of the machinery that runs the household. The well-to-do of those days would marvel at the need now for kitchens to have expensive granite countertops, Sub-zero refrigerators and Aga stoves, installed in rooms with maple or walnut cabinets. After all, back then, kitchens were only for the servants.

My father once gave us a tour of a Boston townhouse that had been converted to a college building where he was an administrator. In the basement was the kitchen of the old house. It had a huge sink, a room used as an ice box, and a stove. The stovetop came barely up to my thighs, and I wondered how anyone could spend a lifetime stooping over such a thing. But my dad said that it worked perfectly for the Irish immigrant women who had escaped the famine to find work in New England, because they had been malnourished and were tiny things for whom the stove would be at just the right height.

How much of the houses we live in reflects the economy in which we live? Back in my childhood, a middle-class family like mine fit six kids and two adults, and on occasion a visiting relative, into a three or four-bedroom home. Now, some kids never share a bedroom until they go off to college. Some not until they find a mate (and I recently read an article in the Star Tribune telling of the newest thing — separate rooms for husbands and wives!).

How different we rich nations are from the poor. Once on a street in Acapulco, I saw a little girl, neat as a pin in her school uniform, emerge from what looked like a refrigerator carton that they used for a house. Her mother and grandmother were sitting in what was their kitchen, a space in the swept dirt under open air with a table, a few ratty chairs and a camp stove on which was cooking a pot of beans.

Class envy would seem an impossible thing in our society, where we all have so much, even those we call poor, and where help is so readily (if perhaps so burdened with red tape to be too daunting) available.

And instead of feeling privileged to have people waiting on me hand and foot, in the U.S. we pride ourselves on doing for ourselves, and there is a sense of failure when I can’t. Even my Christmas shopping is being done by someone else!

It’s a strange thing to consider in a historic and economic context. Am I living a life of privilege or one of disadvantage?


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