Thursday, February 08, 2007

The thankless life of a housekeeper

As I was making coffee this morning, and admiring my (temporarily clean) kitchen, I realized that I've been given another Life Lesson and glimpse into my mother's thinking. She and I fought bitterly from the time I was in high school until I was in my mid-20's, and we never managed to craft a decent relationship. I did a lot of work around our relationship at an intense spiritual retreat about seven years ago, and was able to see and understand some of her behavior in a much less critical, and much more adult, light. But some of my memories about her still baffle me, and make me wish we'd been able to fashion a minimally close relationship while she was still functioning so I could have gotten to know her better as an adult.

Anyway, I noticed a few smudges on the white countertop tile, and began an internal fume about how HARD I'd worked to clean the damn thing yesterday and how NO ONE appreciated that work, and how David, damn him, didn't wipe up after himself, and, and, and ... and suddenly, I understood my mom in a way I never had before.

My mom was a fierce housekeeper. We used to joke that one could have open-heart surgery on her kitchen floor without any concern about infection. She had a hard-and-fast schedule for cleaning, and the only days where she wasn’t cleaning something in the house were Friday and Saturday. And she CLEANED. She didn't muck around with sponge mops, she got down on her hands and knees and SCRUBBED the kitchen and bathroom floors (hence the open-heart surgery joke).

Our home did look wonderfully neat and sparkly - as long as none of us did anything to mess it up. Of course, we did, which meant that she was almost always pissed off at one of us - at my dad for spilling pipe tobacco on the rug, or at me for being such a complete slob (I’ve matured into a somewhat neater person than I was back then), or at my sister for doing something equally horrific and inconsiderate.

Back then, I thought she was a raving maniac. But now that I'm home so much of the time, now that this house really is the center of my corporeal universe, and now that I'm hyper-aware of cat litter trailed on the floor by the cat box, or crumbs on the countertops, or how gross the bathroom sink gets after a couple of days, I finally understand how she must have felt. Because keeping that home sparkling clean was her JOB, a job she did magnificently, and most of the time, we didn't appreciate a thing she did. If we did appreciate her efforts, we rarely acknowledged them.

When David crafts a magnificent hardwood cutting board, everyone can see and appreciate his hard work. But when I spend several of the very precious hours when I have energy scrubbing the kitchen down, not only do things get dirty almost instantaneously, no one notices my efforts. That kind of ‘work’ is pretty much taken for granted. The work of a housekeeper isn't valued all that much in our society, is it?

No wonder she was so angry all the time. At least I’ve had a 30-plus-year long working career, the last years of which were interesting and fulfilling and (at least some of the time) fun. I sure wish I'd figured out all of this stuff before she disappeared into dementia so I could have apologized for being a self-absorbed, unappreciative teenager, acknowledged her hard, fierce, loving work, and thanked her for it. It’s too late now; she passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2003. But I’ll never discount what she did for us – ever again.

Thanks, Mom. (And I'll never have a house as sparkly clean as yours was. Not ever!)


mdmhvonpa said...

My mom is the same way ... I used to be until I got a little less energetic. Now I really wished I was still ... but alas ... dog hairs in the carpet and sand in the mud room.

Libbi said...

Oh, right. Cat hair. I just wish I could find a way to market it!

.......deb said...

Hey Lib,

I really like this piece; so much so I am tempted to print it and mail it to my mom.

I particularly love the word "fierce" in here. Captures the intensity in a demonstrative way. (Nothing like a strong one-syllable word to get your point across, especially when it's a word not generally coupled with scrubbing and dusting.) Nice!

Libbi said...

Of course you can send it to your mom, Deb. Tell her I sent my love when you do?