1. Archive

Oh my, what would the neighbors say?

(ran SP, TP, PT, HT, CI editions)

When I was a kid, it seemed to me we were forever doing extra housework for someone who might "drop in."

My mother would suddenly look up from the ironing, or sewing, and announce that this house was a "holy disgrace," and everything needed to be straightened up in case someone dropped in.

First of all, I couldn't imagine how anything could be holy and a disgrace at the same time, but if I dared ask, I knew Mom would consider the question as "talking back" and another indication of my tendency to be downright bold. Well, I didn't ask, but I knew Mom's survey of the condition of the house meant my sisters and I needed to get busy.

As I recall, we did have surprise visitors once in a while, and I thought that was a great idea. Not too many people owned telephones in our neighborhood, so the idea of telephoning before calling on friends had not taken hold in the 1930s. Relatives and friends, unexpected or not, were always welcome at our house.

I did take a dim view, however, of polishing furniture, washing dishes and making beds just in case someone dropped in. I pictured some kind of Phantom Lady arriving at our front door with white gloves and a steely eye who would go from room to room inspecting and labeling everything as "Neat" or "Not Neat." On top of that, she was a gossip.

Most of the advertising in newspapers and on the radio relied on guilt and a great need of housewives to avoid being judged as less than perfect. God forbid anyone would be so brazen as to hang out a line of wash that clearly showed "Tattletale Gray."

With my imagination, I pictured neighbors rushing around, whispering about our sheets and towels. "Tattletale Gray" was a clear indication of a wishy-washy attitude toward cleanliness, certain to bring on gossip among the tattletale neighbors.

My mother was always conscious of the neighbors. "What will the neighbors think?" was one of her favorite questions when my sisters and I were kids. So we not only kept house for this phantom person who might drop in, but we behaved ourselves for a bunch of nameless neighbors who were all set to pounce on our family with a ton of gossip.

Perhaps it was a result of apartment house living in New York that made my mother so aware of the neighbors. There were 48 families living in our apartment house alone, and with open windows and close proximity, there was as much curiosity and gossiping about each other as one might find in any small town in the country.

I developed a good deal of rebellion against all these judges by the time I reached my teens, and vowed I wouldn't give a rap about the neighbors when I grew up and got married.

Not so. I have to admit I still care a lot about the neighbors, and I have done a great deal of straightening up, polishing and dusting for someone who might drop in.

Maybe the Phantom Lady wasn't such a bad idea after all. Still, I'd be willing to bet no ad agency would dare come up with the threat of tattletale gray to get housewives to buy its soap these days. The company probably would get a very strong message from the feminist movement or a group pushing equal opportunity for husbands and housework.

_ You can write to Louise Andryusky c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.