For as long as I can remember, Saturday was Cleaning Day in my mother’s house. It didn’t matter what had happened during the week or what else might be going on that weekend, everything came to a screeching halt to make room for bucket, broom, vacuum, and dust cloth.
It’s the dusting I remember best. The cloths we used were dish towels relegated to the rag bin or old diapers burnished soft by years of use and countless washings. (This was back in the day before disposable diapers — which, when you think about it, really aren’t because they’ll be here forever along with the plastic lawn furniture and cockroaches.) First Mom would vacuum, running the old Hoover (and, later, the central vac) from room to room, ratcheting the hose around corners, thrusting the head under couches and chairs in search of every stray gram of dust. We lived in an old house, over 200 years old by the time I came along, and dust bloomed in that old place like flowers in a garden. I recall Mom standing in the middle of a just-cleaned living room and lamenting at the dust motes shining in the sun that slanted through the windows. “Where does it all come from?” she wailed. Well…from us, Mom. There were three of us back then — her, me, and Dad — plus visits from friends and relatives. Oh, and let’s not forget the dog and cat. They did their share, as did the house itself.
I would wait at the ready as Mom made her circuit of the room. Heaven forbid I move to begin before she was through. Vacuuming stirred up more dust and she wanted to give it time to settle before I came through. As soon as I was given the “all clear,” I moved in with cloth in one hand, can of Pledge in the other, and worked my way from one piece of furniture to another — plant stands, end tables, coffee table, television, and the shelves behind my father’s chair that housed my mother’s precious knickknacks. Not only the shelves were dusted, but each item must be removed, carefully cleaned, and gently replaced — the tiny china doll, the stupid ceramic dog with the glued-on hair that I gave her one year for Christmas, a glass egg I found in the old deserted chicken coop beneath our barn, a white glass jar shaped like Aladdin’s lamp, pictures of her grandchildren.
It’s only been in the last few years that Mom gave up her routine. As age and infirmity have taken their toll, as illness has robbed her of strength and will, some things have slid onto the back burner of her life. Oh, she’ll talk about how dirty the house is (ridiculous; my mother has never kept a dirty house. If both legs were broken, she’d drag herself through the place on her elbows clutching a dust cloth in her teeth), but now, of course, it’s a moot point since she’s been recently moved into assisted living. I’m of two minds on this. It’s a good move from a logical sense. She was alone too much of the time. She’s unsteady on her feet and might take a fall. Her cognitive ability is failing. Yet…she kept herself busy with her little bits of cleaning and such. In the new place, they do that for her, so it’s just one more thing that’s been taken from her. Never a social creature, the routine of her housekeeping defined her days. Now that it’s been taken from her, what will she do? Will she be able, at this late date, to redefine her life and herself in a way that is positive? I suppose that time — however much she has — will tell. Now it’s left to us to move through the quiet hallways and silent rooms of the house she lived in, taking care as she once took care, lifting the knickknacks, dusting each one, reliving the memories each holds, although our memories, I’m sure, are different from hers.
As for me, it took a long time to break the habit of Saturday cleaning. Having had it ingrained in me from a young age, it became habit. Like my mother, I would forego pleasure to get the housework done. Even into college, Saturday morning was my time to set things straight in my household…and, in an odd way, in my life as well. Although I no longer clean every Saturday morning (I broke that habit a long time ago, thank the Maker), and although I probably clean less often than I should (what’s a little dust between friends?), I still find it something of a meditative practice. When I dust, I don’t have to think about anything in particular. I move from room to room and let my mind rove as it will. Sometimes it sorts out a plot problem in a story. At other times it helps me to figure out a personal issue. Mostly it’s a time to put the rest of the world at bay, to make an oasis of order in the general chaos that occasionally takes over my life. If I can have one room, just one, that looks and feels the way I want it to, that becomes my haven when the storm breaks, a place to retreat where I can look out at the rest of life as it batters my windows and feel, for a moment, safe.