1955: A Clean Sweep with a New Broom

It is a warm day on a weekend afternoon in the summer of 2007 and Elly Valastro — then 12 — pulls her father aside, her eyes wide with pre-adolescent incredulity. Not quite rage, not yet. But her father, James, needs to jump in. Elly is 80 pounds of roiling disbelief, a usually patient young adult about to go postal. Father and daughter are visiting James’s mother at her home in Indian Lake, N.Y.

“You are not going to believe this,” Elly is saying, holding a broom in her hand like a spear. “Grandma just gave me a half hour lesson on how to sweep a floor! Thirty minutes on … sweeping!”

Grandma was Gladys Hunt Valastro. She passed away last May at the age of 92. When she was lecturing her granddaughter on how to sweep, she was a mere 91.

The thing about Gladys that interests me isn’t merely that she and her husband were living independently in a small dot of civilization in the midst of the Adirondacks into their 90s. It’s that part of her history that understood there was a right way to sweep and a wrong way. This wasn’t a personality quirk; it was a calling. Gladys is one of five names bylining a small but pioneering book published in 1955: “Rehabilitation Monograph VIII. A Manual for Training the Disabled Homemaker.”

Gladys’ story is one of those idiosyncratic tales that briefly had an almost Forrest Gump-like brush (no pun intended) with history. Her ancestors — the Hunts — had helped found Huntington, Vt., but had moved across Lake Champlain to the more primeval wilderness of the Adirondacks because their little town had gotten too crowded.

She was only an adequate student in high school, but a teacher noticed she had an artistic flair and convinced her to apply to the Pratt Institute, an art school, in Manhattan. She was accepted and was pursuing costume design when she left to become a nurse during the Second World War. She arrived in Europe in 1944 a few months after D-Day, stepping ashore on Omaha Beach and following the troops and tending the wounded as the Army fought its way into Germany.

When she returned to Pratt after the war, she had a new focus: Interior design. What had changed? According to her son, it was the injured soldiers for whom she had been caring in Europe. She wasn’t interested in finding the perfect spot for an ottoman; she was interested in making life easier for the disabled. And because she was female and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was still a decade and a half away, she focused on the disabled homemaker. She set out to design a handicapped accessible kitchen. She worked on a small team with Howard Rusk, for whom the NYU Medical Center later would name its Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.

The result of their work was a kitchen with (according to her book) “narrow open shelves to keep supplies within sight,” plenty of pegboard and “hooks and holders to keep small items within reach.” The counters are lower, the drawers are shallow. Pots and pans go in cubbies. It was revolutionary thinking a half-century ago. And that model in the wheelchair demonstrating how everything functions? It’s Gladys Valastro.

The photos in the book she co-authored remind her son of the house in which he grew up: A combination of cluttered spaces for function and empty spaces for serenity. To this day, James can still crack eggs perfectly with one hand, because his mom taught women to do it — as well as her son.

“Near the end of her life, she wanted people to know what she did. As a grandmother she wanted to be remembered for what she was good at,” James recalls. “Our house growing up was such an easy place to live in. It was like the Apple computer of houses. Everything was where it needed to be. Everything was about efficiency. You had the right spaces and the right tools.”

Including, of course, a long-handled dust pan and lobby brush — the kind that years later Gladys would use to tutor her granddaughter in the fine art of sweeping a small space.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 1, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.