Sudsy hands, warm memories; A Window Over the Sink: A Mainly Affectionate Memoir, by Peg Bracken. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $10.95.
My mother and the author of this book would have gotten on like a house on fire (I choose my words carefully). Long before Peg Bracken had recoiled from the sulfur-dioxide smell of her first hard-boiled egg, Mother had realized that housework's OK in its place, a place very far down on the list of her priorities. This awakening came the first day she found herself alone in her own house. She swept up the kitchen, regarded the resulting pile of dreary dust with disgust, climbed on her bicycle, pedaled to a lake, and went for a swim. That, of course, was before she learned that rugs aren't just for ornament.
My mother didn't exactly hatem housework (it's just that swimming is nicer), and I suspect Peg Bracken was exaggerating when she called one of her earlier books "The I Hate to Cook book," and another "The I Hate to Housekeep Book." I think she hoped shock tactics would undo the brainwashing that would have us believe sweeping is preferable to doing the Australian crawl and how naughty of us to doubt it for a moment.
In her latest book, "A Window Over the Sink," the window wins out. However, when the sink is uppermost in her mind she does offer a few housekeeping and cooking hints.
But usually it's the window, the work- transforming window in her brand new kitchen in Hawaii, that is in the ascendant.
She explains better than I can what happened when she first looked through it:
". . . I was astonished at the way my mind took off in seven-league boots . . . . I was traveling eastward ho, across the ocean, past the Rockies and the small Idaho town where I was born, to the small Missouri town where I grew up, and to some other places where I may have grown up some more, though I'm not entirely sure about that."
And that is her cue for what she calls in her subtitle, "A Mainly Affectionate Memoir."
Now it's wise to watch out when writers threaten you with moments from their childhood. Not all memories keep well -- they tend to go soft and Norman-Rockwellish without the Rockwell humor. But Peg Bracken's have kept as crips and nourishing (and slightly tart) as a Granny Smith apple. I would go a long way, for instance, to meet her wise and eccentric painter-aunt (she reminds Peg Bracken of Camus: "In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.").
I would travel all the way to McKinleyville to meet her brother, who chose pumpkins as his favorite fruit because they smile a lot, and who liked to leave a bit of his neck dirty to show how clean he had gotten his face.
I wish I could have visited Grandma Em, who knew all about the importance of housekeeping. Grandpa would say, "You can eat off Em's floor, there's a lot of good stuff down there."
But then I don't have to go anywhere to meet them, for here they are are, between the covers of this book.
But make no mistake: I don't agree with everything Peg Bracken writes, and, like brownies, I find too much Peg Bracken jauntiness at one sitting a mistake. Her books are to be nibbled -- not gobbled.
And I have one serious quarrel: She criticizes the names my fellow-Britons give their food. She thinks their "boiled sweets, flummeries, and fools, their treacle tarts and their toads" sound unappetizing. What would she have made, I'd like to know, of a United States paper that only the other day headlined its food page "Grub with flair."
While I am still carping, I think I should voice a sneaking suspicion: Peg Bracken may be softening. She may even now be writing "The I Like to Housekeep Book." If you doubt me listen to this:
". . . Despite my frequent complaining, I must grant that there are comforts to be found here. Esthetic comforts, perhaps, in the S curve of the apple peel; andy physical comforts, certainly, in the good smell of the gravy; and even some philosophic ones: the charred pot may need scrubbing, but this, too, will pass."