My grandmother Rose, cleaning.

I remember the first time I noticed lots of dust on the shelves in my mom’s duplex. She was in her seventies. I didn’t say anything but I was stunned. Despite the fact that she deeply resented my grandmother’s incessant cleaning, and her undesired assignment as meticulous co-conspirator, begun when she was a young girl, in her adult life she’d continued the tradition of having a spotless, organized living space. “You could eat off my floor” was a favorite quote of my grandmother’s, who clearly derived self-worth from her efforts. I thought it was pitiful that such a smart old lady had such a limited view of herself. My mom’s brothers were let off the hook in the domestic responsibility arena, in keeping with the sexist tradition of her upbringing. My mom not only sustained the constant cleaning, she did it all herself. Maybe when all four of us kids were younger, there were occasional messes. But I only remember the essential order. The primary reason she did virtually everything was based on her unconscious modeling of her mother’s behavior, never probing herself to understand if it was what she really wanted. My dad read the paper and did virtually no chores other than participating in the family’s weekly trips to the laundromat. Where she diverged from my grandmother was in her determination to never inflict her abuse on her children. In that effort to save us from repeating her oppressed childhood, my siblings and I didn’t do much to share the housekeeping burdens. I have some awfully guilty memories of watching mom scramble to iron my school gym suit on inspection day mornings. In retrospect, she reminded me of Edith Bunker from the famous television show “All in the Family,” which exposed the truth of many social disparities, including the chasm between women and men on the domestic front. My mom could return home from a major surgery and within minutes, be cooking the evening meal after changing her clothes while dad lay on the couch watching the news. He wasn’t abusive, just unconscious. She never complained about the inequitable division of labor while I was growing up. Although really smart, like my grandmother, she opted to live in the traditional constraints and boundaries of her mother’s world. Although I, along with my sisters, was encouraged to get educated, I don’t think she gave much thought to our potentially professional futures which might diverge from her own limited life. College was a bonus but a husband was supposed to be the primary provider. CareersI think what she hoped for us was a safe haven, with more financial comfort than she had. My grandmother never worked outside her home. My mom was employed a few times for a year or two when our circumstances were dire, but her health was problematic and truthfully, the paradigm of being provided for was her preference anyway.

My grandmother, mother and sister-in-law at a holiday gathering.
My grandmother wearing her favorite house dress, and my younger sister, 1978.

These were my two primary women role models. My grandmother was a tough, physically strong, but bitter person, who wasn’t by any stretch a snuggly warm matriarch. Her life was hard and painful. She had eight live births, with five surviving children and as many as ten miscarriages. I don’t know if she loved my grandfather. He wasn’t an impactful character in my life – I can’t remember a single word he said to me. I do remember him sitting at the table, head down, scooping fried eggs into his mouth, while she paced behind him, serving more food while simultaneously berating him. In her very clean apartment where you could eat off the floor. My mother was happily in love with my dad, saving her hostility for her mother with whom she argued fiercely every day. Their morning conversations were maddening and I was strictly on my mom’s side, begging her to hang up the phone. In our very clean apartment where you could also eat off the floor. Neither one of them drove a car. They both ran hot and no matter how warm the weather, worked in these little house dresses called “shmattes,” old country slang for rags. They weren’t really rags, but the name stuck. They never wore shorts, both too vain to let the world see the smattering of spider and varicose veins on their legs.

Mom wearing a house dress I bought her.
Mom, again in that favorite dress, with my daughter.

My life was really divergent from theirs in ways I can’t count. Although I did marry and stayed married until my husband died, I always worked, up to and including my years as a parent. I can’t say that the distribution of domestic labor in my home was exactly equal, but my husband cooked, washed dishes, did laundry and was an active parent. My high energy made a difference in who did the most work as I was an early riser, out of the house before anyone else had stirred, returning home with the shopping done before anyone got downstairs.

I ran hot too but wore shorts and tank tops while I worked. All that observation of cleaning as I grew up reared its head when I settled into my married life. I wanted an orderly house and worked hard to replicate at least a version of how mine was back then. None of this “you can eat off my floor business,” but aside from letting my kids be self-determining about their own rooms, the rest of the place was clean. I over-achieved. I did the whole working mom, staying ahead of the housework thing for many years. An organized environment helped my brain. Life for me was comfortable that way. I liked being in my soothing rooms.

By the time our kids were gone, Michael and I had settled into a pleasant routine. He did most of the cooking. We shared cleanup. We each did our own laundry, although we swapped chores if necessary. We worked outside together in the garden. Everything worked well until his sickness disrupted our routines. When he died, I knew that my interest in cooking and cleaning would disappear. The food part wasn’t any big deal. But I wanted to have a clean house without doing all the labor. I’d found a great helper when Michael was sick but she’d moved into a different job out of town. After a few trials, I finally found a good match for me and indulged in a bi-monthly couple of hours deal that left me with only the most essential work. Trying to figure out a strategy on living alone for the first time in forty-five years was a challenge. I had my swimming. I scheduled a massage for myself every six weeks so I wouldn’t go crazy without human physical contact. I signed up for classes and joined a book club. I did pretty well for almost two and quarter years. Then along came COVID. Suddenly all my self-care plans were out the window. I’d hoped for the social distancing to relent after a few months but we all know how that turned out. I continued to pay my house helper for about 5 months without her ever coming here. My comfort level about having her in my house when she was living in a large family wasn’t going to work. So it’s been months since I’ve had any help. My house is too big for me and was hard to keep up with even when I was much younger. At seventy, it’s more than a full time job. I’m not moving because my kids live across the street. Quite a conundrum.

So dust. Now I have dust. Just like the dust I saw at my mom’s place all those years ago. Have I crossed the invisible line between being young enough to manage and old age when you can’t? Did my mom notice her dust and decide she just didn’t care about it any more? Eventually, she stopped paying attention to other things which were in striking contrast to her other meticulous habits. Is that what I’m looking at right now? I really can’t answer that question today. Maybe as vaccinations become available, six months or so from now, I’ll be able to resume the activities that were part of my pre-pandemic life. Maybe the drudgery of dusting will look pretty good if I run out of activities to keep myself occupied. When I was examining one of my dusty bookshelves, I got involved with an interesting mental journey through my life as a reader. I have a few little kid books but lots from my earnest teen years. Ages ago, Michael and I donated hundreds of books to downsize our possessions but there are still plenty on the shelves.

My first mythology book. The Beatles and Black Beauty. Romance novels, music and my first foray into James Joyce.

The books that shaped my political ideology, magic realism and lots of history.

I barely got through one small bookshelf in my house. I still love the look and feel of these books that took me back to places in time which I haven’t visited for awhile. I’ll never have the time to re-read them when I can barely consume the new ones I’m plowing through right now, in the present. Despite that reality, I’m not ready to give them up.

I haven’t forgotten about the dust. I’m sure I’ll get to some of it soon. I don’t think I’m at the point where I can ignore it, willfully or not. Ironically, its presence dusted off some pretty terrific memories that I’m glad bubbled up from years past. I still have more than the ghosts of my mom and grandmother to remind me of the sense of control and order a clean house provides. I didn’t save much from either one of them. A piece or two of old sentimental jewelry along with cards and notes from my mom. My grandmother was illiterate. But I have their two house dresses, their shmattes. Not ready to let those go either.

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