I thought I’d gone there to write. After all, I’d just spent two hours cleaning my own house just so I could rationalize the time spent away from home. (I play these kinds of mind games with myself) The sun was shining brightly and I’d hung out two loads of laundry and had the meatloaf and baked potatoes cooking in the oven before I left. I wanted to work on a section of an already completed chapter in order to improve it and wasn’t sure how to get started on that change. I’d already spent one unproductive hour at a restaurant a few days ago, vainly attempting to fit this new information into the book.
When I drove up the driveway, I spent a few minutes in the warm car, mentally preparing myself. It has been half a year now, and I still have to gird myself before opening up the door to the empty house. There was a slight chill in the air when I walked in, so I plugged in the heater, heated up a cup of water for tea, and then turned on some music. When I put my papers and files down, I noticed how the rays of sunlight streaming in the window highlighted some smudges on the wooden tabletop. The wood floor didn’t fare much better; with bits of leaves, pebbles and dust built up in the corners of the dining room.
Slowly walking through the house, I noticed how the carpets had picked up all the debris from my family’s many treks through the rooms and how dust had accumulated on the few remaining pieces of furniture. Even as I plugged in the vacuum cleaner I wondered at my actions. Wasn’t I supposed to be writing? I felt the tenseness in my shoulders relax with the fluid movement of the vacuum over carpet. My mind wandered, first to the dilemma of the where to insert information about trading stamps into my book, and then to my childhood. I found myself smiling at the irony of how I was reverting to my youth’s chores in my childhood home. While I’d done plenty of outdoor chores (hoeing weeds in the garden, mowing, carrying fire wood, watering and feeding poultry) at some point in my teen years I’d successfully begged off most of those chores in favor of the housework I preferred. Some of my siblings might not have had a choice in their toil but I believe my mother had something to say about needing some help herself, because once I started cheerfully contributing to the housework my father often left me with her when the others were required to help outside.
“Mary, you stay here and help your mother,” he’d order in his gruff voice and I secretly thrilled at the idea of working at my mother’s side and lightening her load. I’d get down on my hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor with a rag, imagining myself a Cinderella figure (by then I’d caught the acting bug and loved everything theatre). I’d apply a thick coat of wax to the sparkling clean linoleum with another rag. Then I’d shake the homemade rag rugs outside, sometimes beating them over the clothesline with a broom. I’d vacuum the large oval braided rug that graced our living room floor. Sometimes I even got to iron, a chore that allowed me an hour of mindless quiet in which to plan the plot of my latest story. There is nothing quite so relaxing as sprinkling water on stiff shirts from the clothesline, then seeing the slight whiffs of steam rise as the hot iron smoothed out the wrinkles. I abandoned my own ironing board twenty years ago, but was recently reintroduced to the pleasure by my sister at her consignment store.
I loved cleaning the house back then. To my mother’s astonishment and pleasure I even offered to do the kitchen floor in between assigned chores, occasionally surprising her with a clean house when she arrived home from a grocery shopping trip with my father. To get siblings involved, I’d play games that I later instrumented with my own children; contests to see who could get the most done the fastest or how much cleaning can be done to the tune of one single song.
So there I was, six months after my mother’s death, not sure exactly why, but cleaning her house while wondering at the differences in my siblings and our upbringing. For as the mother of eight children myself, I can attest to the fact that my older four experienced a different mother than my youngest four. Stringent rules and regulations relaxed and expectations became more flexible and forgiving. So it was growing up in my family. We were all expected to work hard and mostly had little say in which chores we were to do. Only the girls did dishes that I can remember. But taking turns washing and drying meant a guaranteed moment of sibling bonding over the mutually-abhorred chore, and a chance to earn money from an older sibling who would gladly pay for the chance to skip their turn. Despite all our assigned chores and probably thanks to my mother’s intervention, at some point in my teen years I enjoyed a sort of hiatus from a large portion of the outdoor work, concentrating my efforts on housework. I don’t know that my other siblings ever got to choose their chores or if they fell into outside work because there was so much of it. I do know that my sister Joan has often expressed that she had to do inside work and sibling Pat preferred the outside chores. Whether Joan would have chosen housework over garden, or whether she’d ever even had a choice, I’m not sure of.
For a good hour I cleaned in my mother’s home; vacuuming, sweeping, dusting, and even spritzing Windex on the glass-doored cupboard between the dining room and living room. Thanks to my generous sister Joan, I even got to use a Swiffer mop for the first time and it worked surprisingly well, even as well as the old rags and polish I used to use, and much easier on my knees. As I cleaned I idly wondered which chores my siblings had preferred in their childhood, and which they prefer now. A different sibling, a different sister might notice the weeds popping up in the flowerbeds, the grass that would soon need mowing, stray sticks outside in the yard, I thought. What a gift my siblings have been for me in my lifetime, my train of thought continued; first as cohorts and playmates in childhood, and later as friends in adulthood. And now, since our mother’s death, true companions in this journey we call grief.
Somehow, alone in my mother’s house, it seemed right that I was contemplating my childhood while cleaning the house. I had been my mother’s right-hand man in housework for a few short years so long ago. I had noticed the deteriorating look of a home not cared for.
I was surprised an hour had passed when I finally sat down to write, the time had gone so quickly. I’d enjoyed it, I realized, almost as much as the next half hour when I dived with gusto into the chapter I needed to change.
I was surprised by the palpable sense of relief I felt when I heard the sound of a vehicle pulling into the driveway. Reminiscing while cleaning had left me with a kind of loneliness that only the sight of a sibling’s face could rectify. I met my sister Pat at the door, glad to see her even though we’d worked together the day before.
“I won’t bother your writing,” she greeted me; “I just wanted to do some work in the flower beds.”
I gave her a hug and told her about my curiosity that day. She, at least, would choose the flower beds. Half an hour later, another sibling, our baby sister Jane, was toiling away at a particularly stubborn pane of glass in one of the windows. She would choose the housework.
I don’t actually remember which one of us voiced the thought that had been in the back of my mind during my cleaning spree; perhaps we all ended up in the same place that Sunday afternoon because we were looking ahead a week to a day that would be difficult for each of us.
We were preparing our mother’s house for Mother’s Day.
She would have wanted it that way.