Whenever I clean, whenever I am sweating on my hands and knees wiping strands of hair out of a corner or picking them off of freshly Ajaxed porcelain, I try to interrupt my feelings of victimized indignation to dreamily recall how I grew up with a maid.
Now, we weren’t particularly rich. My father was a school superintendent (this is back when school superintendents made one and a half times or twice what teachers made as opposed to 600 times) and my mother was a teacher. The deal was that my mother was such a housecleaning perfectionist that if she had even one iota of responsibility for cleaning the house, she would freak out and just clean it all the time, so she just went ahead and spent a third or more of her salary on help and then tried to wash her hands of the state of cleanliness of the house lest she have some kind of fit. My mother is going to read this and say it’s an exaggeration to call what we had a maid. But I know what happened. I was there.
We had a lot of maids. They were all white women who mostly came from a nearby bible college which is now closed, and some of them would try to get me and my brother to "take Jesus into your hearts." They were also our babysitters, but we were supposed to leave them alone so that they could focus on cleaning. I guess they would really be more accurately called housekeepers, but mostly now people have those once or twice a week, and ours came every weekday. Whatever title you want to assign, the bottom line was that I grew up in an absolutely spotless home that I never actually cleaned. My bed was made every day. Dust never materialized. I don’t even think I had any awareness that my hair ended up in the shower drain. I was staying with a friend once in college and her mother complained, quite angrily, that I had left my hair in the drain. I remember thinking, god what a bitch, how much hair comes off your head anyway and gets into the shower drain #insertTheRingjokehere?
At the time, I had never before gotten angry about filth, because there wasn't any to get angry about at my house. But I am now obsessive about cleaning hair out of shower drains, and I have no problem paying it forward and shaming people about it as I was once shamed.
I still can’t really make a bed. Thank God you don’t really have to make beds anymore, because everyone has down puffs and duvet covers—I mean, not everyone, of course, but I do. I can put a fitted sheet onto a bed, but for the first couple years when I had to do it myself, I would get it wrong sometimes, and on a few occasions, I cried. I cry a lot when I find minor things difficult. Yesterday, I had to move a box to get to another box and I just started crying.
I spent many years thinking certain things just cleaned themselves: toothpaste tubes, shower caddies, stovetops, televisions, all the stuff in the refrigerator, including shelves. "My" shelf in our refrigerator (I share a large house with two other people to whom I am not related. It is not ideal but it’s not a like some dump where people do meth all day, and luckily, whenever I want to practice gratitude about this I need only step around the corner and look at the dump where people do meth all day) is disgusting right now. It holds one half of a flaccid parsnip, two loose, old, but probably perfectly fine eggs, a jar of pickles and a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise. The shelf is smeared with butter, ghee, and mayonnaise. I will have to clean it at some point soon but this means I will have to remove the glass shelf and it’s hooked into the refrigerator in some weird way and very hard to get out. Yes, the last time I took it out and cleaned it I cried, but I told myself it was because they don’t put more R&D into improving the removable parts of refrigerators.
My mother told me a story about once seeing her mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the corner of the kitchen with a toothbrush and thinking, holy shit, what a lunatic. And then, 25 years later, she found herself doing the same thing and she said to herself, I have to go back to work now. My grandmother was a very good cleaner and fairly punished herself with her talent. She would never allow a toilet brush in her home. I once heard someone ask her, “What’s wrong with toilet brushes?” and she snapped, “If you really love your family you just stick your hand in the toilet.” My grandmother truly believed people that had toilet brushes were subhuman. My mother is the same—with some self-consciousness, but mostly the same. If you ask my mother what someone is like, and she has been to their house but does happen to not be a particular fan, she might mention that they have a toilet brush in their bathroom. I know my mother has very dear friends who have toilet brushes, but there will always be something about them that disappoints her. Clean baseboards are also very important markers of civility to the women on that side of the family. If you can run a finger along someone’s baseboard and come up with dirt, well, whoever is in charge of keeping that house clean (and by association, everyone who lives there) is an animal.
So. What I am is a slob who is descended from two obsessive cleaners who can’t afford a housekeeper but still want things to be housekeeper clean. Luckily, a couple of years ago, I lived with a woman who was obsessive about cleanliness, like my grandmother and mother but also armed with all sorts of new technology, like Swiffers and cutting-edge bleach products. She also grew up in Orange County, which is just a very clean place. And at first I thought she was crazy, but within a very short time she had activated what was always there inside me. I still have my slob moments, but when I decide it is over, and time to get things into shape, cleaning for me is a blood sport.
I now share a bathroom with someone and in the six months we have lived together I have cleaned the bathroom maybe eight times, and she has cleaned it once. It was about a month ago, after I said something like, “Clean the bathroom or I will kill you," but I can’t be sure because I think afterward I went into an emotional blackout. At any rate, she jumped up right away and went into the bathroom and let the water run and did some scrubbing noises and a few seconds later she emerged and sang out, “I’m done!”
I was furious, luckily for her in a non-violent, memo-writing way. You need to know at this point that when friends of mine are moving out of apartments and need to make sure they get back their deposits I have been called in, like Harvey Keitel's "The Wolf" in Pulp Fiction. I sometimes call myself The Bathroom Whisperer, and when I do, no one laughs. So you can see that I felt qualified to sit down and start making a list of all the things that go into Really Cleaning A Bathroom. It then occurred to me that people who smoke a lot of pot don’t like reading long lists written by people twice their age.
So I looked the bathroom over and realized, well, it was clean enough to live with for a day or so, and then I would have the pleasure of re-cleaning it and then I would have the pleasure of seeing she did not even touch the baseboards and really, she had kind of done me a favor, because it was going to feel so good to clean them and just be better than everyone at the same time.
Every time I start to clean I feel this sort of ancestral rage. I think about my grandmother on her hands in knees in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in the 1950s, and my mother on hers in Lebanon, New Hampshire in 1968, and about how my mother stood up and turned—very smartly, I think—to the checkbook. I realized that there is really no list you can make about all the things you need to clean in a home or how they should be cleaned. But if you are to clean properly, you must, while cleaning, feel this rage. You must feel rage for the people who made it dirty who are not you, partly because they have not stepped up to the plate but mostly because even if they had you’d have to do it all over again anyway. If you can keep this feeling of rage going as you clean—or, conversely, it seems, if you have Jesus in your heart—you will do it right.
Photo via ryanh/flickr.
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