I took swimming lessons when I was a kid. Two weeks every summer at the local high school gym. Tedious mornings of cold water and synchronized bubble blowing where we learned very little and really participated only for the last ten minutes. That was free time and payoff for most kids, but for me the payoff was something different. My payoff was afternoons at Beth’s house. She was another kid learning to swim and she happened to live on the way home from my Dad’s work so I got to go home with her after lessons. It was a normal occurrence in a kid’s life, but to me it was life changing. I say that because Beth lived in something I had never experienced before. Something I didn’t even know existed. A clean house.
I grew up in a large family with a mom and dad who stayed around the dinner table with us for hours discussing big ideas and books and politics. I will be forever grateful for those qualities in my parents, but, honestly, I just wish someone would have cleaned the bathrooms. Or the kitchen. Or anything. I mean we didn’t live in call social services filth, but our house was always one step away from total chaos. I remember bringing a little girl home from school once to play and as we climbed over the mound of dirty laundry to get to my room she asked me, “Doesn’t your Mom clean?” That was my first indication that maybe my house was different. That maybe there was a better way of doing things. However, that “better” way was never tangible until those afternoons I got to spend with Beth.
Folks, her carpet had dark tan lines through the plush where the vacuum cleaner had been. I can’t tell you how beautiful that was to me. There was absolutely nothing on her kitchen cabinets and laundry lived in drawers and closets. Never on the floor or in doorways. Her mom would bring snacks out on matched plates with matched glasses. I grew up drinking out of tin chili cans that had been repurposed into glasses. I honestly thought Beth’s house was perfect and my own home was a disgrace.
I would like to tell you that as I grew older and moved away from where Beth lived I grew up and learned to embrace my mom’s cleaning style, but I didn’t. Truthfully, I was a jerk about the whole thing. I never missed a chance to rub my mom’s nose in how dirty our house was. When she would ask me what my dreams for the future were I would always tell her I was going to grow up and have a clean house. I told her there would be less books and more order. I told her the top of my refrigerator would always be clean and there would never be trash overflowing. I was very certain that my front door would never open to anyone if my house wasn’t totally clean. I picked up that torch and carried it with a vengeance. And, guess what?
I did it. My house was clean. Company never came that everything wasn’t perfect. Drawers were organized and corners swept. My son and daughter grew up in a house where dishes matched and appliances sparkled and they couldn’t have cared less. In fact, my daughter prefers my best friend’s house that resembles my old home. It’s not as messy, but there is that same air of “just let that go and let’s enjoy each other.” All of my nights and early mornings cleaning never even registered to them. They had always had it so it was their normal. It was just the way things were. But, I never quit. To not have a clean house meant I wasn’t doing my job. Good moms had clean houses.
Recently though, three things happened. My mother died, my daughter got married and I finally stoppped cleaning. Seriously. I just don’t care anymore. It’s just two of us here these days and cleaning should be the easiest it’s ever been, but the house doesn’t show that. I’ve quit my crusade. As I’m writing this, there are cokes on top of my fridge and crumbs in the toaster oven and it just doesn’t matter to me. Now, I want books stacked on chairs and socks under the edge of the couch and empty yogurt containers everywhere. I want the people who generate those things and I want them around my table. I want to let it all go and just enjoy each other. I want to tell my mom I’m sorry for giving her such a hard time for all of those years. And, mostly, I just want the moments back I wasted on bathroom floors and tupperware cabinets.
As I mentioned, my daughter recently got married. She called me one day to tell me she had hired a housekeeper. I cried. Part of it was jealousy, but mostly it was because I hope that my own daughter, raised in that tension between my mom’s way and my way, will live in that sweet spot of balance. I hope her weekends and early mornings will be adventure and good books and that she’ll always be able to find a clean shirt or a matched pair of socks in the process. And I try not to take it too personally when she tells me, with fire in her eyes, that she’ll never parent like I did. She says her kids will have much more freedom than she did. Good that she got that figured out so early.