On Cleaning: An Interview With My Mother



4 white street ny ny, 10013

Neighborhood: Tribeca

I wasn’t always a compulsive cleaner. Quite the contrary: I was once slovenly and slothful– an unmitigated slob. The cleaning disease crept up on me over the years like a bad case of the measles; until, lo and behold, I’d become a fullblown clean freak. The kind who, at 6:00pm, reaches for the Fantastik with a couple of paper towels instead of a martini with a couple of cubes; the kind who arrives home from vacation, vaults for the vacuum cleaner/mop/sponge with suitcase still in hand; the kind who intends to spend a “relaxing” evening at home but is unable to remain supine for longer than 13 minutes without leaping up to tidy any clutter that may exist in the vicinity, or to do a few laps with the vacuum cleaner, or. at the very least, get in some cursory dustbusting.

Contracting the disease may have to do with the fact that I was raised by a human cleaning machine: my mother.

My four siblings and I never lifted a finger–nor did my physician father, who was so busy bringing home the bacon that he probably mistook the worn sponge attached to my mother’s right hand for a swollen finger or perhaps a benign tumor. I recall gazing, puzzled, at my best friend’s refrigerator where a long list of chores assigned to each family member was posted. To me it resembled some kind of abstract legal document. Meanwhile, our very own human cleaning machine spent her days restoring order to government-declared-disaster-area-style bedrooms, or hunched in the kitchen scrubbing, or vacuuming up the cascades of broken glass that exploded daily in our basketball court, otherwise known as a glassed-in sunporch. Her evenings were often spent in the garage going through the garbage in hopes of retreiving a homework/punishment assignment consisting of 100 painstakingly copied lines of “I will not throw the eraser at the teacher’s head,” an innocent sheet of paper that, in a mad, frivolous act, was placed on a clean surface for longer than 15 seconds.

By the time my mother had the temerity to suggest that I might help around the house–for example, make my bed, a formidable task if there ever was one– it was too late. By then I’d conveniently become a militant feminist–and concurrently, a vicious adolescent. “Why should I make my bed if my brothers don’t make theirs?” I’d retort. (What my sister’s excuse was I don’t recall. Maybe she had to wash her hair.)

I, the not-so-dutiful-daughter have tried to atone for my sins; in fact, my all-too-forgiving mother recently reminded me that she too had never lifted a soft lily white finger while growing up. So it happened that we began to compare notes (ie whether those new instant shower no-scrub spray cleaners actually work) and a cleaning dialogue ensued.

Transformation from Unmitigated Slob to Clean Freak

Mother: The first time I attempted to clean was the day I arrived home from the hospital with Baby No.1. At 22, I had never seen a new baby, and I had never cleaned, needless to say. Any minute the two Nobel Laureates of cleaning–Mother-in-law and Mother–were due to arrive. The furnished apartment we lived in came with dark Spanish-type furniture, so I bought Olde English Oil for dark furniture. I annointed every surface with oil; I wanted the apartment to glow. It glowed all right, since I did not wipe the excess off, and Mother-in Law dipped her designer suit sleeve on a wooden arm rest. There was a flurry of activity as the Mother of the nervous wreck (me, the new mother) tried to clean the sleeve of Mother- in-Law. Mother-in Law watched with horror as I ran around the apartment wiping off all surfaces with the burping diaper, upon which the new infants cheek was soon to rest. Mother-in-Law said (may she rest in peace): “My son was never brought up in such a household.” Mother of nervous wreck replied (age 100 and still with us): “Anna, have a heart on my daughter.” Mother of the same imbecile (me) spoiled her rotten with exquisite nightgown ensembles. The same day I washed them along with my husband’s all wool long socks (part of his trousseau) in boiling hot water. The socks fit the new baby; and my lingerie did too.

Daughter: Did you ever think I’d become a clean freak?

Mother: I always thought you were a slob with potential. I always felt there was a structure to your sloppiness–as there was to mine; the excess was shoved under the bed–but very systematically.

Daughter: Do you remember the first time I made my bed in your house? I think I was 30 years old. You had tears in your eyes when you saw the hospital corners; then you slipped me a fifty at the airport.

Mother: There you go again–distorting the truth! I did not slip you a fifty!

(Daughter’s note: It may have been a twenty.)

Daughter: How did you become a clean freak?

Mother: I cleaned to alleviate the fear-and-tension syndrome developed from having five hippie children and a spouse who underwent repeated orthopedic surgeries. The operative word is TENSION; that’s what produces cleanliness in my house.

Daughter: No question about it. Although, as you know, I do not have the spouse or the children, I do juggle a few careers, and thus frequently attain a high tension level. And tension is tension–no matter how you slice it–the fuel behind every clean freak.

Most Important Goal: True Cleanliness or a Sense of Order?

Mother: Sense of order. My mother was such a goddamn Mrs. Clean, I vowed never to become one. I’m really a hysterical cleaner instead of a true cleaner. I ignore all areas that are not exposed to the naked eye until the old anxiety hits, and then I attend to them. For example, I don’t care about cobwebs.

Daughter: Absolutely. All lofts have cobwebs and mine is no different–but I only notice if a very very important guest is due to arrive and then I just whack them down with a broom.

Mother: Use the dustbuster; the greatest invention. It was a godsend–just made for neurotic cleaners.

Crumbs, sponges, counters and sinks

Daughter: I seem to recall that crumbs have always been your greatest nemesis.

Mother: I never thought crumbs were my nemesis, but you may be right because I tend to associate crumbs with vermin.

Daughter: Crumbs on the kitchen counter make me crazy–I like my kitchen counter in tip top shape.

Mother: I’m not sure there’s such a thing as tip top shape but I too like a clean counter. I recommend Corian–or, for formica, may I suggest Counter Top Magic?

Daughter: Are they sprays or powders?

Mother: Sprays of course; who the hell uses powders?

Daughter: I like a powder on occasion–what I really detest are sponges; they never do the job–you always need to follow up with half a roll of paper towels.

Mother: I despise sponges; the puddles are terrible. I’d much rather waste my money on Handi-wipes.

Daughter: Have you tried the new Chlorox wipes? I find them very satisfactory.

Mother: I can’t get past the smell of Chlorox.

Daughter: Oh this has a nice subtle floral smell. I use them to clean the sink–although I can’t seem to ever get a stainless steel sink streak-free.

Mother: I have the best solution for that: Murphy’s Kitchen Care Cleaner. Or rather, I had the best solution. They stopped making it, the worse thing that ever happened to me. I called the company; they said they’d been getting thousands of calls and didn’t know why they discontinued it. Now I use the Comet bathroom cleaner, which isn’t bad.


Mother: Most important to me is vacuuming. I have a Eureka Little Boss and a Big Boss and two Electroluxes.

Daughter: Why would someone need four vacuum cleaners?

Mother: You need the upright for the rugs and the cannister for the hardwood floors. I started out with the Eureka Little Boss but it was very hard to get the battery charger in; it was such hell, but I used it because I loved it. Then I found the Eureka Big Boss which had a device to take out the battery pack so it was heaven. I bought my first Electrolux in 1983 and it was love at first sight. Great suction, but then something happened with the hose. The newer model is not as good; it picks up fine but I don’t like the plastic parts. And then I have the electric broom which I bought because my back was so bad; it’s small and light. Although emptying it is a hell on earth–shaking the bag is trouble; dust flies all over.

Daughter: I’m not big on vacuuming– although I do have to confess that the first thing I bought when I finally made a reasonable income was a refurbished Electrolux, which I do cherish.

Favorite Time to Clean

Mother: Between 5:30 am and 9:00am; I do not clean past 9. My very favorite time to do big time cleaning like kitchen drawers, shelves, closets, is when acute anxiety strikes. These attacks have resulted in some of my most outstanding cleaning.

Daughter: Ditto–it takes one to know one–although I often need another session at the end of the day to to settle the nerves–and to prepare for the next day’s battles.

On Cleaning Ladies

Mother: My experience with cleaning ladies has been excellent since I’ve always harbored such a deep guilt that I should have one. Even Willie who stole your dolls, and who turned me in to the IRS was a friend. And then there was Viola who nipped at the alchohol and took my purse; I made excuses for her too. As for my longtime cleaning ladies, Lou and Jamie, they never left until death interrupted their chores.

Daughter: Having worked as a cleaning lady and the fact that I am single and able-bodied, I still haven’t had the need or nerve to hire one.

Traumatic Cleaning Episodes Between the Generations

Mother: Did I ever tell you about the black bottoms of the Revere pans? The housewives of the forties and fifties were slobs, many with big families, and were not taught to clean copper. Grandma came to the rescue when we all had the Asian flu and your father took off for a medical meeting. She did not come to cook and spoil us; she came to clean.We were all lying in the master bed suffering when I heard a muffled scream come from the kitchen. I ran down to find that she had discovered the hidden Revere pots, none of which had one speck of copper showing through the one-inch thick black crust. While I rose up from my fevered state to care for you all, she cleaned for 8 hours to restore them to their original condition.

Daughter: Remember that time when you came to stay with me in my pre-clean freak days? By the second day I had developed an acute muscle spasm in my neck and had to take to my bed, heavily sedated with muscle relaxers, and when I finally staggered out of my bedroom, you were gone and my kitchen was pristene. What I remember most vividly is that the stainless steel sink was streak-free, a trick, as you know, I’ve never quite mastered–and that you’ve stayed in hotels ever since.

(Editor’s Note: Betsy Berne found enough non-cleaning time to write a novel called Bad Timing, recently published, that is terrific.)

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