Roy Herndon Smith
Two brilliant practitioners of domesticity,“home or family life” (New Oxford American Dictionary 2005-2017), inspire this series of posts. Naomi and her youngest child, Ruth,* live in a large house where Naomi raised her large family. Since Ruth was fourteen, she has joined her mother in caring for Ruth’s troubled, now deceased, father and her also troubled, now deceased, uncle, who spent almost every afternoon and evening at the house. Naomi has devoted almost seventy years to maintaining the family home as a sanctuary, not only for family members, but also for anyone who comes into the house. Ruth has, for over forty years, joined her mother in this domestic work. During the last ten years, as Naomi has become more physically and cognitively frail, Ruth has taken over responsibility for maintaining the home. She is also her mother’s primary caregiver.
The kitchen is the heart of their home. Naomi spends most of her waking hours sitting at the large kitchen table. When Ruth comes home from work, usually around six in the evening, she usually spends the next three or so hours with her mother in the kitchen. When family members, friends, or neighbors visit, they check in and spend time with Naomi in the kitchen. When plumbers, electricians, and other people doing repairs and maintenance on the house visit, they check in with Naomi or Ruth, usually in the kitchen. Often, especially if they know Naomi and Ruth from previous visits, they linger, sometimes for half and hour or an hour, after they’ve finished their work, to sit and talk with Naomi and, if Ruth is there, with her.
They linger because Naomi and Ruth welcome them. With their listening and compassionate responses, the mother and daughter make the kitchen and, stretching out around it, the whole house, a space simply to be. They hold people, with their suffering, trauma, conflicts, joy, passions, and love, in the stillness of their presence. Around them, time becomes an empathic space in which everyone and everything lives and resonates with each other. They invite all who come to “rest naturally” (Tilopa) in the embracing world they make.
The kitchen is also where they do much of the work necessary to maintain the house and to sustain the family. They cook and clean up and do the bills. Ruth makes the arrangements for people to come and do maintenance and repairs. They call family members and friends to check on how they are doing, and Ruth makes arrangements for visits and family celebrations. They write congratulatory and thank-you notes. They talk about how to help family members, friends, and neighbors who are struggling or suffering.
While, in her early thirties, Naomi left work outside the home to raise her family, Ruth has worked as a social worker for almost the whole of her adult life. In her work, she treats others the way she and her mother treat each other and others. She is acutely attuned to the ways people working together establish patterns of interaction—a culture; and she, with wisdom learned with her mother, interacts in ways that evoke and strengthen collaboration, mutual consideration, and attention to individuals’ particular strengths and struggles. Around her, a sanctuary, in which people affirm and support each other, forms.
Naomi and Ruth reveal what domesticity truly is—living in reality as a home in which everyone and everything is a relative (“mitakuye oyasin,” Lakota); reality as the trustworthy whole in which all gives birth to all, all nurtures all, and all is necessary to all; reality as the ground on which we walk, the air we breathe, and the water and food we drink and eat and that constitutes us; reality as the source and container of suffering and joy, life and death; as not only the world we are in, but also the world we are of; more simply, reality as the love that we and all else continually make together and are.
*not their real names