The Return of the Generals
“But tell me, does Penelope already know of your return, or shall we send someone to tell her?"
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book 24.
Of course, in those long years before the Generals, as we came to call them, returned, they had made small incursions into the kitchen, sneak attacks in the middle of the night for chicken legs or roast beef, so we should not have been surprised when their forays became more numerous and irritating. It went with the territory. But, nevertheless, we were as small countries often are when bigger states try to gobble them up: paralyzed by shock. They had let us alone so many years, struggling to do what we did, that we never imagined that they would want the little they had allowed us.
“Look at what the Brigadier has done,” one of us said at the weekly coffee klatsch held in her kitchen. “I was so furious I didn’t clean it up.”
We surveyed her kitchen with the thoroughness of U.N. peacemakers combing a bombing site.
Her kitchen had been devastated. The best frying pan was ravaged on the stove in puddles of bacon grease. The loaf of bread she had baked yesterday lay butchered on the counter, and her best currant jelly was smeared across the table. Weapons of mass destruction were apparent everywhere—knives, butter, eggshells, yolk-coated spoons, spilled juice. “And what do you think he said when I got upset? ‘Well, Penny you’ve made me breakfast all these years, I thought I would give you the chance to sleep in this morning.’”
Once Penny woke us up, it became clear that we were all under attack. It was as if the Generals, having come home from their wanderings across lands and seas, now had to assert their power in our little worlds. They wanted back what they had never had: the refrigerator, the stove, the can opener, the Cuisinart, the potato peeler. It was strange. Even in the ’60s or ’70s we had not imagined them doing something this invasive.
Of course, each Lord and Master had his own quirky tactics. Each had scouted out his private territory and discovered where each of us was most vulnerable.
Take the Inspector General who had retired early from the military-industrial conglomerate: he now wanted to micro-manage Xenia’s shopping. For 25 years, Xenia had gone for groceries, but now he trailed her through the store like a M.P. with his lights spinning. He took items out of the shopping cart as fast as she put them in. “This is really too expensive, dear,” he would say in the officious way that had made him an efficiency expert. “We do have to be careful, with the economy the way it is.” Stuff she bought for years, he decided they really didn’t need. Olive oil in an aerosol can? And stuff she had never bought, he suddenly had a hankering for.
“Hon, let’s get some beef jerky.”
Beef jerky! He never eats beef jerky.
“Well, I would if we ever bought it.”
While the Inspector General was marching into Wegman’s and Stop and Shop, the Rear Admiral was annexing the car. “He says he feels uncomfortable when I drive. I never had an accident. I never got speeding tickets, but he feels uncomfortable when I drive. I have been sneaking out of the house when he is in the bathroom and just driving around the neighborhood to prove I can still do it. I mean, what would he do if he had a heart attack and I had forgotten how to turn on the motor? Last night he threatened to put a lock on the gas tank, on the gas tank of my car, and keep the key. We are spending too much on gas, he said. We have to ration our miles.” Yasmine rubbed her eyes with a Marcal tissue.
And the Lieutenant General had drawn up plans to turn the sewing room into a private museum for his collection of international beer bottles and railroad spikes that they had been moving from place to place, the collection which he had started as a kid and which had been the bane of the first three of his wives—Alyssa, Agnes and Abigail—who had always relegated the cardboard boxes to the cellar.
“I knew I should have made getting rid of that collection a condition in our marriage contract,” said Annaliese, “but I assumed he would just leave it in the cellar as most husbands do.”
While we were discussing whether Annaliese should or should not give up her sewing room for family peace—we had always been conciliatory types—another of us asked about garages. Most of us, we realized, had quietly conceded our garages years ago. We had ceased trying to keep them a demilitarized zone, our idea of weaponry being so different from theirs. What were we going to use hatchets, hoses and weed-whackers for?
“I always thought it was so weird how the Inspector General could be so particular about the creases in his pants and then make a mess out of the garage,” said Paula, the anthropologist among us. “Of course, we had been adhering to the inside-outside accord: the woman takes care of the inside, the man takes care of the outside. But I got so tired of sweeping his clots of grass clippings off the garage floor, I finally told him, you take the garage.”
Others of us admitted similar concessions, though some of us still commandeered the garage for the annual spring inspection tour. “What else can we do? They just throw everything in there—empty paint cans, oil changes, dented helmets, old cycles they fixed up but don’t ride since their friends succumbed to early accidental deaths.”
While most of the Generals used their garages as dumps for rusting toilet armatures and broken pipe bombs, we were all aware that the Attorney General had been using the garage for some years as his private clubhouse. He had carpeted it and gotten a flat screen TV. We had never blamed Georgene for letting him take over her territory. In fact, until now we had not recognized it as a hostile takeover.
Usually the Attorney G sat on a lounge chair with the garage door raised, and as the rest of the Generals went about their tactical lawnmowing and hedge-clipping, he would call them over for a beer. We all thought it was bad for our grass, which began to grow underfoot, but the Attorney’s invitations did keep the rest of them out of our hair for whole Saturday afternoons, so we had given tacit approval. Georgene, who had once been a clamorous, if not strident, feminist, aided and abetted him with trips for potato chips, pretzels and Austrian lager. Let the little boys have their little clubhouse, she said, and we matronizingly agreed. Now, we began to realize that their little clubhouse was just the nose of the chameleon. Or, as Clarissa, whose husband had been an Anglican chaplain as well as a Rear Admiral, said, it was the beginning of King David lusting after Bathsheba’s Teflon cookware.
We could see we had a problem. Freed from their trains and their planes, their offices and board rooms, their universities and pulpits, their department and convenience stores, their firehouses and police departments, exiled from the places where they had once been kings and prime ministers or at least sub-lords and sub-masters, the Generals suddenly wanted to run our little estates.
And some of us said that perhaps we should be glad. After all, hadn’t we always been aware that we spent eighteen hours a week to their one or two doing housework? Hadn’t we complained about the dusting, the cleaning, the cooking, the shopping, the endless reading of Good Night, Moon and playing Monopoly and Battleship with the children, the monotonous treks to soccer skirmishes and ballet brawls—which we had managed in addition to our full-time jobs–while they sat around reading National Guard and Army Illustrated? Shouldn’t we be grateful?
But the problem was their attitude. After years of accepting the way we cooked and kept house as our rightful lot, what we were doing was no longer satisfactory. They wanted us to do it their way. My own Douglas MacArthur wanted to fill my dishwasher because I wasn’t making effective use of space. He wanted to wash all the clothes in cold water and hang them outside to dry—or when it got cold, he wanted me to hang them outside to dry, something I hadn’t done in years. There was an energy crisis, didn’t I know? Suddenly, he was the one who wanted to fight to save Planet Earth from my terrorist plots.
He wanted to stuff two loads of wash in the dryer so that I would have to sneak down, remove half and start the dryer again so that the jeans could dry. He wanted to take all the pictures with our new SRL digital camera, and now I was supposed to be in the pictures. He had never wanted pictures of us before, but now that I was looking a little haggard, he turned those lenses on me and shot. Some of the other husbands were suggesting facelifts and tummy tucks, sometimes for themselves, but generally for us. Others wanted us to stop coloring our hair to match their own distinguished gray. Most of them wanted to decide when to exercise, and they wanted us to exercise with them. They devised exercise programs for us, who had been exercising all our lives while they sat on their well-padded bottoms.
With all this exercise, some, like my own Doug, began feeling randy and woke us up at 5 a.m. to make love. Impotence seemed a thing of the past.
Douglas had always made all the drinks, but now he wanted to dictate how much I drank and with whom. Too much alcohol, he was telling me, was especially dangerous for women. Breast cancer and heart attacks.
Then began the siege on the back yard. Douglas wanted to cut down the trees in the back yard and grow kale and Brussels sprouts in our flower gardens. He was taking over every room in the house, using both the kitchen and dining room table to read his newspapers, spending hours on my computers to check his e-mail, telling me that I didn’t need my own car now that we were both retired and would be spending more time together.
As for television, of course all the generals had taken control of the remote in the family room years ago, but now there were flipping channels in the bathroom and kitchen as well. One even wanted to join the reading group and suggested we read more Denis Johnson and less Alice Munro.
Individually, we had all thought we had marital problems, but we now began to realize that these attacks were a global conspiracy. All the ground that we had gained in the ’60s and ’70s was swirling down the bathtub drain, which the Generals pointed out we should be cleaning with baking soda and vinegar rather than the harsh stuff we had been using, or if we had been cleaning it with baking soda and vinegar, they suggested something eco-maniacal they had once used to wash blood off clothes and children.
“And our daughters don’t understand,” said Penny. “They say, ‘Well, Ulysses is just trying to help you.’ Right, I say—the way plantation owners helped slaves.”
“Aren’t you fighting back?” asked Hermione, wide-eyed with amazement. She was the youngest among us, and her husband was planning to retire in June from a long tenure as a physics professor. All this seemed inconceivable. Surely, the world couldn’t be changing this much.
“Well, I try, but I guess I am caving in. I don’t really enjoy those explosions in the market place. He’s yelling, ‘That’s too much to pay for socks.’ And I’m yelling, ‘But, that’s what they cost.’ Last week I told him, you go buy the groceries yourself. You get what you want. If you want to scream at the price of everything, do it without me. I am not going to the grocery store and suffer a skirmish every aisle. It’s embarrassing. Of course, then he gets all hangdog and says, ‘But Kat, I just want to be with you.’”
“Oh, Katerina, you can’t let him go alone. Next thing he will want to take over your bicycle. It will be Munich all over. Waterloo again.”
So we faced a dilemma. We could concede to grocery shopping and let them try to make an appetizing meal out of what they had bought. We could forfeit the oven and let them bake their bread or make their gourmet macaroni casseroles or cook their endless garlicky salsas. Or we could fight.
We discovered that fighting wasn’t as easy as it once had been. Unlike my Douglas with his 5 a.m. potency, some of Generals never seemed to notice that they had gone two whole weeks without grappling a Sabine. Others seemed to miss sex a bit, but their high blood pressure prevented use of drugs like Levitra and Viagra. Lysistrata’s bargaining chip wasn’t as chipper as it once had been.
A few of us had Generals that were interested in trade-offs. One Fleet Admiral said that he would take care of the cleaning if Jane would take care of the cooking, which included after-meal clean up, of course, but otherwise he kept the house spic and span as a swabbed deck. It was a treaty she was happy with, and since he was not a particularly aggressive man, he stuck to his promise. Frankly, we were all a little jealous.
Likewise, when Mary’s Vice General wanted to take over her kitchen, she actually encouraged him. “Go ahead,” she said, “you can cook until you are 110, and we still will won’t be even.” She had done the same thing earlier. “I’ve put in this stinky diaphragm for eighteen years,” she said, “now you can use a condom and clean up your own mess.” However, in the kitchen he didn’t really clean up the way he should, no matter how many hints Mary sent his way. “It was easier with the Trojans.”
And so it went for several years: we Third World powers met in our kitchens while the Generals had their weekly games of tennis or golf. Sometimes we complained about further encroachments on our territory or little skirmishes in which we felt we had gained a square foot or two of carpet. Sometimes we traded ploys for getting them out of the house for an afternoon or ourselves out for an evening. One of us told her man that if he wanted to live on nothing but the stews that he was constantly making, that was fine, but she was going out to eat in a restaurant once a week so she could have some meat to sink her teeth into. She had to sneak the car keys when he was in the shower, but she said she had quite enjoyed her steak. Next week we all went with her.
Another, who had been upset when her general came home with the neighbor’s crab apples to make jelly, decided she might as well let him make a business of it, and now he had a stall at the farmer’s market. “It keeps him busy, but the thing that gets me is that everybody makes such a damn fuss over men who make jelly. You would think he had freed Tibet.”
A few women urged their Generals into other countries. One got hers to volunteer at the literacy headquarters, another to band birds, and a third to help build a new playground. “There’s so much to do, but they just can’t seem to find it themselves.”
Others worked out treaties, which the Generals had a hard time living with, but which nevertheless helped. One of us said, okay, Monday, Wednesday and Friday I am in charge and we do what I want (or at least I do what I want, and you can do whatever). Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday you can be in charge, and if you want me to play tennis or hike Mount Everest, I will. Sundays it’s the grandchildren.
And some days we conceded that perhaps all this invasion had something to do with the loneliness of the generals. Outside of work, some of them didn’t seem to have much in the way of friends.
Nevertheless, one by one the Generals began finding their own new territories—some quite suddenly claiming a little plot of land.
Others took several years, during which—because we were the patient kind of women we were—we gave ourselves over entirely to their needs, schlepping them to doctor’s appointments, chemo treatments and therapy sessions.
Some, though, wanted to be in charge to the end. They demanded to have their dying beds moved into the living room or the dining room where we would be most aware of their ascendancy.
At that point, most of us were too worn down to fight. The house became entirely theirs in those last months, most of them refusing the defeat of hospital or nursing home. Only those who had dementia or Alzheimer’s like my Douglas could be forced into such places. And even in the nursing homes, they sometimes shouted all night, “Take me home. Take me home. My mother is worried.”
And, of course, since we had always had more stamina, we did regain control of our kitchens, where towards the end most of us suddenly felt as if it didn’t make much difference if we cooked or not. That also went with the territory.