Writers and House Cleaning

Febreeze quote (2)I’m looking at a cartoon of a female writer and she has her face hidden and the caption reads”If I don’t clean my house soon, someone is going to bring in blindfolded people for a Febreeze commercial.” I’m laughing, but it’s got me thinking about house-cleaning and my own history in that regard.

My first memory of cleaning was from an early age and reflected my mother’s addiction to enslaving her daughters. Her house was cleaned to within an inch of its life every Saturday by my sister and me. The entire time we were being closely guarded by my mother. She may not have sat astride a mean old horse or carried a massive shotgun but we felt the same anticipation of any black prisoner on a work gang. Our life depended on us NOT screwing up. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was a good person, but when it came to scrubbing the bathroom or washing a floor, this demonic, crazed, clean-freak took over her mind. You would think with all that motivation at a young age, my sister and I would have spotless houses and as a result not be able to write a word. That’s not the way it plays out.

My sister and house cleaning had it out years ago and she sent the whole idea packing. She was not wasting her time cleaning. Instead she raised five beautiful children and now has a full set of grandchildren and even a handful of great-grandchildren. They all lived through the dust and debris and are amazing healthy and happy. She became a talented knitter and seamstress, masterful cook, and her baking is still absolutely the best. Her time with her kids, in the pool, at their sports games and the killer backyard Bar-B-Qs, made her not only the best Mom to her kids, but to the neighborhood kids too.

She welcomed every child into her home and entertained friends without ever dealing with food poisoning, bacterial related deaths or strange viral outbreaks. Actually the only casualty I remember was the time we temporarily lost her oldest son when he was about seven, but then he knew he was NOT supposed to open THAT closet door. The highlight of that day was the whole family laughing and digging to find this little voice, giggling out an occasional ‘Help’, from under the massive pile of laundry, paper and other stuff, all stowed in the closet so it was out of sight.

My sister lives alone now and sometimes worries that her house maybe needs to be cleaned better. Our mother entrenched in our thinking the necessity for absolute cleanliness and even though my sister did beat it years ago, I can see her still feeling a bit guilty now and then. She is in her seventies and her health is not very good. She does the little things she can do and when her children drop in, she lets them wash the kitchen floor or clean out a closet or spare bedroom. These efforts make her very proud, but they are not nearly as uplifting to her as just seeing those very important people in her life. It’s wonderful that they do these things for her, but I know it’s having that conversation and laughing together that puts the big smile on her face. Sometimes she worries about the family, but that’s just being a mother. Al least she never worries about cleaning.

Now as for me, I clean too much. I admit it. No excuses. I love my family and I hope they never suffered as a result of my need for clean. My mom scared the hell out of me when I was a kid and I still have trouble not cleaning constantly. My one saving grace is that I never enforced those draconian cleaning requirements on my children. I’m sure my kids are reading this and laughing. But maybe they forgot about their rooms (not exactly pristine) and my weekly hunt for lost dishes.  How about all the friends that spent time at our house, eating, playing cards or just hanging out until all hours? The pizza boxes did not vaporize. Remember the hole in the paneling downstairs that was actually named because it looked like a chicken and the hole in the ceiling I wasn’t supposed to ever notice. Trust me – my cleaning obsession had little effect on my sons’ lives.

I never enforced those same cleaning requirements on my friends or extended family either.  I don’t usually notice the clean of other people’s homes.  I know when I visit other people, some start my visit with ‘Sorry, this place is such a mess…’ and then I feel stupid because I didn’t notice. I did learn from my sister to visit people, not houses and I thank her dearly for that.  I could never be the anal retentive ass my normally clean house might seem to indicate.

Looking around my house, I see the crud that normally sends me into a cleaning frenzy. The hardwood has stains all over it from snow-boots and baby drool (I babysat my beautiful 10 month old crawling, teething, grandson) and my bathroom is covered in towel lint – a pet peeve of mine. The dark carpet in the main bedroom has threads and lint on it. There is dust absolutely everywhere. The kitchen floor looks worse than the hardwood because that rock salt that gets thrown on the ice outside has been tracked in. If the cartoon, and all the prose that go with it, are correct I can only succeed at writing if I learn to ignore this.

It will be very difficult – but I CAN do it. No cleaning for three days – that’s the challenge now. If I can pull that off I’m on my way to a Pulitzer. It’s time to get my mother’s obsession out of my head. Can I stop with the anti-bacterial soap or waterless hand cleanser? How about those kitchen wipes that kill germs? I have to stay calm, and take one step at a time.

I wonder if there’s a twelve step program for this…


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