Control, or rather the pursuit of it, is on my mind as I scrub the kitchen and bathroom counters today, replacing a cruddy toothbrush holder with a decorative container crafted back in second grade by one of my sons. I always wondered what to do with that mass of indigo clay. Now, when I brush my teeth, I think of him, sheltering from the pandemic, holed up in his apartment 3,000 miles across the country.
Control is on my mind, too, as I vacuum, not bothering to return the machine to the closet after finishing the living room. Instead, I move it around to the bedroom, to the dining room, the kitchen, and the entryway.
“Why are you vacuuming at 7 a.m.?” my husband asks me. “Isn’t it too early?”
It is not too early. Next I will clean the floors and even the sofa cushions. Armed with Lysol, I’ll attack surfaces, doorknobs, and faucets, spritzing away in an unshakable fear of COVID-19. And then, as I grab a fresh roll of paper towels, it hits me: I have become like my mother.
My mother had a sponge, a can of Ajax, and a Brillo pad in hand before finishing her first cup of coffee in the morning. She didn’t think twice before submerging her hands into a sinkful of scalding hot water. Asbestos fingers she called them.
Throughout my teenage years, and long after I left home, her meticulous and exacting manner of bed-making, dusting, ironing, and mopping ran in direct opposition to my own lackadaisical approach.
“Hang up your clothes,” she’d say pointing to the mound on the bedroom floor.
“Why bother? I’m just going to wear them again.”
“So they aren’t wrinkled.”
Sensible, but who cared? I had friends to meet and records to listen to.
Now, as I disinfect my home, attempting to stave off the pandemic ravaging us all, I wonder whether my mother’s compulsive cleaning was, as mine has become, an expression of control in an out-of-control world.
Born in 1924 to poor immigrant Jewish parents, by the time she was 13 her family had been evicted 17 times from various apartments in Brooklyn. “I’d walk home from school with my younger brother and see our furniture out on the street,” she said, her eyes misty. This was life in post-Depression immigrant neighborhoods, long before tenants’ rights.
She was barely out of her teens when her mother’s early death left her to manage a household and care for a younger brother while her father tried to earn a living. His remarriage to a chilly stepmother soon followed, and my mother’s ambition to become a professional dancer faded.
“I wanted to be like Cyd Charrise,” she confided across the kitchen table. “I could dance on roller skates. You should’ve seen me.” She was talented enough, but show biz eluded her. Instead, she saw marriage at 20 as the only way out of a difficult family home.
When I was 13, and becoming a bat mitzvah, my mother’s health began to decline. She developed psoriasis, and for the next 30 years would suffer an array of serious illnesses: ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer.
Through it all, she cleaned.
Leave a pan to soak overnight? Verboten in our house. Not cleaning everything before putting your head down to sleep? For her, that was the stuff of nightmares.
“Look at it,” she’d remark after a morning spent scrubbing the kitchen floor. “So clean you could eat off of it.”
I rolled my eyes beneath a curtain of long, uncombed hair, so as not to antagonize her during the ensuing tutorial: “On your hands and knees with a wire brush, rags, and a bucket of soapy water. Start in the far corner. Make your way to each remaining corner, rinsing while you go. That way you won’t step on any wet spot.”
Along with her traditional Jewish values came the expectation that I’d duplicate her life with a home and family of my own. “You’ll be a great balabusta, one day,” she said confidently.
I yearned to escape to my bedroom, where a record player and headphones brought solace with the music of Elton John and Carole King. It was the 1970s, and I was coming of age in a world where women had fought for choices unavailable to a teenager of my mother’s generation.
Bras were being burned, Gloria Steinem brought feminist into the vernacular, birth control had revolutionized the world, and on television Virginia Slims commercials touted, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” I aspired to a financially independent existence, which didn’t include relying on a husband, or anyone else, to support me.
Of course, someone else was supporting me, even as I rebelled against the future my mother envisioned for me. My father’s middle-class income provided our family of five with a comfortable life, and we enjoyed trips to the movies, occasional restaurant dinners, and plenty of clothes.
“You’re a lucky girl. You have a mother, a roof over your head, and three meals a day,” Mom frequently reminded me, her mind never far from the differences in our childhoods.
She was right. Poverty was foreign to me. I never knew the trauma of coming home from school to see my family’s furniture dumped on the street. Instead, I lived a secure teenager’s life in a modest split-level house on a typically unexceptional suburban cul-de-sac. It was a life where making out with the boy down the block trumped dusting, mopping, or ironing my father’s handkerchiefs.
Education and rock and roll eventually provided me with the escape from suburbia I craved. The timing was right; just as I graduated college, the music business was exploding and I rose through the ranks at a major record company. This was a world my mother couldn’t understand: laced with rebellion, loud and angry music and full of people like me, all trying to bust out of the conventional lives our parents had led.
Once, when I received a big promotion, I excitedly called home to announce the news.
“Maybe now you can get yourself a husband,” she said over the phone. I buried my disappointment and went back to work.
By the time I did marry, it was for love. Secure financially, I was thankful once again that my life was diverging from the one my mother had endured, where marriage had been a means of escape, rather than a joyous union. Children soon followed, and again I was fortunate, this time choosing to retire and become a stay-at-home mom.
“You should have kept working,” my mother said.
I was speechless. Wasn’t this what she’d always expected of me? Or had she secretly harbored unvoiced pride in my independence? I didn’t have the courage to ask. But over the years, I’ve often wondered if her disdain at my transitioning to a life that more closely resembled her own was also mixed with resentment—I’d been able to make choices unavailable to her.
It seemed as if my mother and I would never understand each other.
I wish she were alive now to see the fruits of her labor and of that balabusta training. I wish she could see my recently discovered ease with cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and laundry. I wish she could see me cleaning my wood floors.
I’m on my hands and knees, like she taught me. In lieu of the wire brushes used on her linoleum, my tools are disinfectant spray, a sponge, and rags. I work slowly, meticulously, as she once did, removing mud-stains from shoes, spilled food, and dried grease. Before I apply Bona to give the hardwood a glowing sheen, I grab the trusty vacuum to suck up any crumbs let fall while cooking.
It’s as if removing the evidence left on the kitchen floor will alter our current reality. I move on to the cabinets and tell myself that of course, cleaning dried spaghetti sauce from white cabinets won’t make the pandemic subside, but I squirt Clorox anyway.
Maybe Mom felt this way too.
It’s taken our current health crisis and the shelter-at-home mandate for me to comprehend the degree to which my mother suffered, and to recognize the source of her obsession with cleaning. Powerless to erase the memories of her childhood upheaval and abandoned dreams, helpless in the face of illness, and stuck in an unhappy marriage, she seized control of what she could: the cleanliness of her home.
Now, desperate to maintain a precarious safety of my own, it’s as if I’ve stepped into her shadow. I’m walking in her footsteps.
I think she would have been shocked but also proud of my husband and me as we labored with steel wool and elbow grease, scraping the oven racks and burners clean. “You can always judge a house by the oven,” Mom would say, inspecting ours every time she visited us.
These days, instead of listening to Elton and Carole, I find solace in laundry, pulling unwieldy sheets from the dryer, enveloping myself in the soft cotton. Mom would marvel at my newfound patience as I slip one end of the elasticized fitted sheet into another, thankful to momentarily forget about the crisis.
I focus on the rings around the toilet, the tub, and the grime accumulated in the grout of the shower floor. Polishing the tiles has given me a satisfaction I haven’t felt since holding the deed of my first house. I leap at the chance to clean another cabinet, and even scrape the crevice next to the stovetop where itty-bitty crumbs have collected. Who knew a toothpick had so many uses?
Standing in my freshly scoured kitchen, I see my mother standing in her own, admiring the spotless floor, her hands busy massaging her lower back. It must have ached. Yet her face was proud, and she smiled. Mostly to herself. I wish I could have understood that then.
For now, I’m trying. When I get my kitchen as clean as my mother’s, I’ll stand back too, my hands on my lower back, and smile.