It’s Sunday, early afternoon, and I have just finished cleaning the house. More precisely, I have just finished scrubbing the kitchen sink with Bon Ami. I apportion household tasks in the following way: every other week, I clean the house, and during the alternate week I do the laundry. Even writing this makes me cringe. My mother’s housecleaning regime was constant. When she had completed the circuit of cleaning, she just started over. A quick search of my childhood memories would reveal that in essence, cleaning the house was her hobby and career.
My standard of clean is very different than my mother’s. It would not be an exaggeration, and I could find people to corroborate this statement, to say that you could pretty much eat off of any surface in my mother’s home. I can remember with vivid clarity the moment I discovered that the top of my mother’s refrigerator was dusty. I didn’t say anything, no teasing or anything snarky, because I was sincerely shaken to see a thick layer of dust. The same one that’s on the top of most refrigerators in the world. But not my mother’s. Never my mother’s. That dust indicated that something was going horribly wrong in her life (and actually her memory).
When I finish cleaning my house, I feel a sense of accomplishment and peace. For those few moments, there is nothing amiss. I can sit down and read a book or write. If someone stopped over, they would notice nothing but the view or my dog leaping about. My mother never sat down to read a book. She watched afternoon television, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, but only as she cleaned or ironed or folded or cooked. If there was a moment when my mother felt at ease in her own home, I never saw it.
It pains me that in some way she handed down the idea that part of my self-worth is connected directly to my home. But she did. And it is. She and I wrestled over the cleanliness of my bedroom for all the years that I lived at home. Or how neatly I folded the clothes. Or which way my shirts were facing on the hangers in my closet. Later, when I lived on my own, she came to visit my home only a single time, a dark college apartment. She ran her finger along the edge of a bookshelf, coming away with dust. That Christmas, I received a vacuum cleaner from her. She never set foot in any of the many places, near or far, that I lived, ever again.
My mother’s history and my own are intertwined. I feel the tugging almost viscerally when I clean. How much it meant to her to give us all a perfect house. How much I’d rather spend time doing almost anything else because I can never do it right. How much our patriarchal culture has colored everything we do, including what we’re taught as children about our roles and values.
At public readings, when I read poems from my book Every Atom, I sometimes find myself wanting to explain my mother, explain myself. Even though the poems explore what our relationship was, honestly, sometimes painfully, I want to defend her, defend myself. Every person is just one domino in a long chain. She became who she was with the input of all the people and events before her, and I have become (continue to become) who I am for a thousand reasons.
So now I’m going to sit down and read a book. Watch the sky. Allow myself to be present in this moment, remembering my mother.