The day I got engaged, I was given a gift by two women. Jared and I, plus parents and friends, spit olive pits and poured out champagne, dazedly staring toward Lake George. Bolognese appeared and then cake, our two names calcified in curly frosting. It was all so much—candlelit, glamorous—and yet still not enough to mark that moment of asking: private, undocumented on a dusty bluff. Those hours post-engagement had been punctuated by shocks of sudden remembering. I brushed my teeth and thought; we’ll have children. I zipped my dress; we’ll renovate a kitchen. Looked at the lake; one of us will grieve the other.
I tore the paper; my ring made rainbows from light. The gift, from two mothers of two friends from college, was a squat purple book called The Bride’s Book of Lists. One massive to-do: steak and potatoes, gardenias, buttercream, contracts, hotel blocks, Rolls Royce rentals.
I paged through the lists. “Gather family and friends to celebrate your engagement!” I rooted in my purse for a pen, found one, and placed a check next to the item.
Meanwhile, Jared opened his gift. The Husband’s Handbook: slim, black, simple. How to make breakfast. How to fold a shirt. Seriously?
As we forked at the cake, I read the Book of Lists beneath the table. So many tasks. A veil: tulle or lace? A first dance: which tempo? Lines to record phone numbers on. A pocket to keep business cards in.
“Look at her,” said my mother. “She can’t stop reading.”
I’ve always loved what used to be called “women’s work.” At sixteen, I planned my high school prom, themed “A Walk in The Park.” I complained of the burden, but really I relished it: matching shades of green, cultivating centerpieces, ordering Italian sodas. I enjoy throwing parties, and baking peanut butter cookies; I like making dinner reservations, and vacuuming. I get visceral pleasure from spraying countertops with grapefruit-scented cleaning spray.
My mother stayed home from when I was born until my younger brother left for college. She taught me everything I know. How to theme a birthday party. How to wash fruit. How to dust. How to write a thank-you note. She also taught me to read and how to subtract, using dried pasta for counters. She took me to libraries and science museums. She made me smarter. And she did it all brilliantly, seemingly (but not actually) without effort, the smooth-sailing duck with flapping feet underneath. Home for Thanksgiving: my great-aunt peers at the sweet potatoes, and studies the autumnal flatware. “Someday this will be your job,” she says, and I don’t feel annoyed, just proud.
After Thanksgivings, I went back to Cambridge, to a school rather newly allowed to my kind. Harvard didn’t go co-ed until 1977. The library I worked shifts in was built in the ’40s, men only. Girls from Radcliffe (the affiliated women’s college just up Garden Street) would send boys to get their course books, call numbers penciled on paper scraps. According to legend, Harvard men liked to study with their shoes off; the stench might have offended the fairer sex, and so women were kept from the stacks. Interestingly, Radcliffe was printed on Harvard women’s degrees until 1999; female alumni wanted their hard-won legacies acknowledged.