Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Cleaning

I'm sitting here luxuriating in the scent of a freshly steamed dining room carpet (we won't talk about the color or density of the water I emptied from the carpet steamer) laptop is squeaky clean, thanks to a vacuuming and application of electronics cleaner...the ceiling corners are free of those insidious, filmy little cobwebs that tend to escape notice for weeks at a time.

I'm doing spring cleaning at Cold Comfort Cottage.

So I guess the Apocalypse has arrived.

Which is to say: Susie Homemaker I ain't. In addition to sheer obliviousness and a multitude of far more interesting and rewarding distractions, as well as the fact that I have no particular emotional attachment to this place -- my parents built it as their retirement cottage when I was away from home, and to me it's like any number of temporary rentals I've ever lived in; just an ill-constructed, unattractive little box that keeps me warm and out of the elements -- my reticence about getting into the homemaking thing has also been in large part due to a power struggle in my home.

My mother has always prided herself on her housekeeping skills. She's now at an age where she just doesn't have the energy or mobility to keep house the way she wants, but she has also been very equivocal, to say the least, about my helping out. On one hand, when I've tried to pitch in she's been so critical of my efforts that half the time I just give up in frustration; or else she steps in and sighs, "Oh, let me do it." But then she's complained that I don't help out enough.

"Okay," I told her one day. "Make me a list of what you want me to do, and I'll do it. I like lists. They help me."

"I shouldn't have to do that," she retorted. "You should know. This is your house too." (Could have fooled me, I thought sourly.)

Or I'd start doing some household chore on my own, and she'd stop me: "Why are you doing that first? Can't you see that you should be doing ________ first?"

"What difference does it make? At least I'm starting somewhere."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

This past weekend we had a Saturday-morning breakfast-table Intense Conversation on this subject again -- for some reason Saturday morning seems to be when mother-daughter frustration reaches its weekly peak, which is sad, because it spoils the pleasure of pancakes -- and I finally told Mom, "Do you know what it's like to be treated like an idiot? Because that's what I feel like when I try to help you, and all you do is criticize me. Nothing I ever do is right. How do you think that feels? What's my motivation to help you?"

Now, if this were an Afterschool Special, we'd cry and hug and make up; instead Mom got pouty and quiet. But this time, when I got out the vacuum cleaner and proceeded to vacuum behind the sofa, which had been the original plan that day, she did not protest or "supervise." Encouraged, and losing my cringe, I then vacuumed the rest of the floor...and the upholstery...and the curtains...and the walls. I vacuumed the whole house that day.

And, miracle of miracles, my mother said, "You did a really good job."

Followed by: "You make me feel very inadequate."

Have I mentioned that I take medicine for hypertension?

Comic interlude: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? None. "It's all right. You go and have your fun. I'll just sit here alone in the dark."

But anyway, this attitude readjustment has been a great relief to me. And it's readjusted my attitude.

As I've mentioned, I like lists, I think for the same reason that I like liturgical worship and fixed prayer and my workplace day planner; they're all ways of wresting order from chaos. So I've been looking for books that give me some structure for doing housework; some workable timetables. As opposed to my usual crisis-management housecleaning plan: "The carpet is crunching. Maybe I'd better do something."

I've got one book here from the library, the Country Living Home Almanac, which is great because it has a schedule for outdoor maintenance tasks as well as indoor ones. And then I selected an encyclopedic tome by Cheryl Mendelson entitled Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Mendelson is a former J.D. attorney and university professor turned domestic scientist. She's into it; imagine a cross between Mrs. Beeton and Martha Stewart, with OCD, on speed, and you have some inkling of this individual's intensity when it comes to questions like how long to keep an open bottle of chutney in the fridge and how to fold boxers. In other words, she's pretty scary, and that's even before you get to her chapter on homeowner law. But she has provided me with -- caloo, callay -- a comprehensive yet surprisingly flexible schedule for doing everything around the house. Yes! Thank you! You can go back to the boxers now.

At the beginning of Lent I pondered the wisdom of trying to make more room in my life for God not only by creating more mental space but more physical space as well. But then I got all Kantian and started second-guessing my intentions: Oh, come on...that's like fasting to lose weight. But -- you know what? When part of your brain, one of those programs running in the background in your head, is always stressing about the not-quite-rightness of your home, or worrying about your making an adequate contribution to its upkeep so that people who have to live with you don't have to stress about it, it's a distraction; it's something that affects your relationship with God and with the people around you.

I'm still not enamored of Cold Comfort Cottage. But at least it's getting to be a cleaner cottage. And I suspect that my mother and I will both enjoy our pancakes much more this coming Saturday morning.


RuthRE said...

Oh, sistah do I hear ya!

I'm so overwhelmed by the state of the condo....and just can't seem to gain any ground. Trouble is the only one here to complain is the cat...and he doesn't much care as long as his box is clean.

Add in crazy hectic work.....with this in the back of my mind...I'm ready to join the circus and pitch a tent.

And time for God is forced into my brief drive to work.

Let's pray for peace in each other's lives, deal? :)

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Oh, do I relate to the first part of your interaction with your mom. I don't get the pouty part, nor do I get up and clean for the whole day.

Getting rid of stuff would be good however. Simplifying life ie stuff can clear the mind. I wish my mom would get that. She is at an age now where she ignores all the stuff. It will all come to someone else to take care of it someday.

Evelyn said...

The joke about the mother sitting in the dark and saying "go have fun" is TOO CLOSE for comfort! Am I turning into that mother????

Thank you for the food for thought, as always!