My anger and the mighty broom

My mother kept a clean house, even as her marriage cracked. Now, as an adult, I understand the retreat of sweeping

Topics: Real Families, Life stories, Housework, Motherhood, Sweeping, Brooms, Marriage, Coupling, Editor's Picks,

My anger and the mighty broom (Credit: Fiona1 via iStock)

When I woke up this morning, rising in the dark before my husband, I put on tea water and, as I usually do first thing and without thinking much about it, I took up the broom by the backdoor and started to sweep.

I swept under the fridge and around the small table where we’d soon eat our oatmeal. I swept over the bump of threshold that leads to the hallway, digging out the fir needles stuck in the cracks. I lifted the rug by the backdoor to reach pockets of dust. The teapot whistled and the furnace groaned while I gave the floor a second pass in case a wisp of detritus escaped me the first time, and then I pushed the small pile of dirt I’d made into a corner so I could add to it through the day.

My floor was clean. At least for this single moment: unmarred. The rest of the house is not as tended to as the floors. I don’t mind a little clutter, stacks of books and mail, a few dirty dishes in the sink. But for reasons that I’ll perhaps never understand completely, I cannot abide an unswept floor.

My broom is as familiar to me as anything I own. I like its cool weight in my hands. I like the bubble of solitude others heed to me when I’m sweeping. My children tease me and so does my husband — she’s not happy without a broom in sight. True, I have a second broom resting by the front door and another tucked away in the mud room. Don’t touch those brooms, they’re mine. Don’t move the brooms. I need to know where they are. I buy only those made from corn straw, the bristles stitched tight with bright thread then fastened to a wooden shaft, the same fashion of broom used for generations, hung over doorways to prevent evil from entering, the handles handy for beating on rugs to rid the house of menace. I’ve chased cats with my broom; I’ve transported spiders and tree frogs outside on the tips of the bristles. I’ve a few times swung a broom in fury at my husband, the straw white with spilled flour, red with spilled wine, the bristles pointed at him, stay back, go away, leave me alone.

It used to be that a straw broom was set on the ground for a couple to jump over — one leap from a solitary life into marriage. Once across, there was no jumping back.

Why are you so angry, my husband asks me once our fighting has cooled. Why are you the angriest person I know?

* * *

I don’t recall my mother sweeping much when I was a child, though I remember that she kept a straw broom in the closet. Instead of using it, my mother vacuumed.



At night, when my father was out, my father so often out at night, she’d finish cleaning the kitchen until the counters gleamed and every dish was in its place, and then she’d vacuum. This was when I was perhaps 7 years old, maybe 8. I couldn’t drift off to sleep unless the lull of the motor washed over me, the forward thrust, the backward hum as she pushed and pulled across the living room carpet, down the hallway. If the final clink of the dishes wasn’t followed by the whirr of the vacuum, my legs would get stiff under the blankets, my neck hard on the pillow. Any gap of sound got me out of bed to stand in the stream of light at the bedroom door. I had to make certain that our mother hadn’t left us here alone, my two sisters and my brother and me. What if we were alone? What would happen to us if we were alone? I’d lean out just far enough to listen for murmuring voices from the front of our house but not so far that she’d see me and shout at me to, goddamn it, get straight back to bed. I’d better not see you up again.

I stood in the silent half-dark, half-light, convincing myself that she was distracted by a show on the television, or that maybe she got a phone call from a friend willing to hear her out, my young mother, about my father, how weary she was that he was away again, what a relief it was to have him gone. I don’t know, really, what she talked about, her complaints or her secret joy at his absence, as it was all so long ago, but I believe that even then I recognized a burden of loneliness even while I suspected the pleasures of her solitude. Her children were asleep and her rugs were clean. She could pour herself a Coke and drink it by herself; no one around to sneak a sip. She could tear open a package of Alka-Seltzer, slip two flat disks into a glass of water and watch them fizz into nothing. She could dream about a life other than this one, this one that was hers, 26 years old, a houseful of squabbling children, a husband she’d married because too many people had told her not to and she was going to show them and do what she wanted to do.

What was there, then, for her?

One night long after the vacuum was turned off and stored, the television shut down, I woke to the sound of my name. Her voice, my name. She was calling me from the kitchen. In bare feet and nightgown I thumped my way down the hallway and stopped at the kitchen door. My father was in there with her, face to face with her, and one of them held a knife. Why can’t I remember which one had the knife? I’m pretty sure it was her.

My thin mother in her own nightie holding a carving knife so that its point was perhaps a foot from my father’s belly. He still wore his suit, except his coat was off. I saw it tossed over a chair at the table. His white shirt was rumpled and his tie was loose. His cheeks burned and from his open mouth I smelled the highballs sloshing in his gut.

Let’s say that he jerked toward the knife, attempting to grab it. He’s hunted all his life. He knows knives and guns. His grandparents owned the town hardware store. He understands tools and implements. He meant to get the knife from my mother’s hand, but he was slow and a little clumsy, and her fingers were wrapped tight around the handle. The curls on her head bounced about her face when she hopped backward, away from him, as if even her hair meant business.

“Go get Pat,” she said without looking at me. She stared instead at my father. She meant that I should get Pat Warner, my mother’s best friend who lived across the street. I twisted toward the front door that was shut tight against the late hour. Going to get Pat meant opening that door, stepping out onto the cold porch under the star-streaked sky. The black gash of road I’d have to cross alone. Pat’s husband, Joe, looming across the shadow of their own front door, What do you want? Nothing in me wanted to do it. Everything in me wanted to do it.

“Stay right where you are,” my father said to me.

One foot had been on its way to follow my mother’s instructions, but now I brought it next to the one that had refused to budge, hoping I hadn’t made a whisper of a sound, hoping they might forget I was there, this man and this woman. If I was still enough, the scene in front of me might turn to ash.

“Go get her. Do you hear me? Go get Pat,” my mother said.

“Don’t you move,” my father said. “You stay right there.”

* * *

Memory, it seems to me, is nothing but a series of winding roads, hairpin curves negotiated in the fog, mostly leading to dead ends. As for this night, the night when I was 7 or maybe 8, the night of the knife, there’s nothing more than this, the three of us standing in my mother’s tidy kitchen on my mother’s clean floors, my father’s shirt nearly disappeared against the painted white cabinets. I must have gone back to bed to wake in the morning to find all of our knives back in the drawer and my parents in their room, stirring into the day together, having eased for now the seethe of resentment, and Pat Warner across the street without an inkling that she’d been summoned for rescue but that I hadn’t found the gumption necessary to raise her from the night.

Decades have passed since then. Too many decades. Still, when I sweep in the mornings, up by myself in a quiet house, before the radio news is turned on, before the wail of the teakettle starts up, I think about mistakes I’ve made, the lot and stack and snarl of mistakes, and sometimes I think about the mistakes that were made on me. I don’t expect a fix or even an explanation. I wait for the welt of memory to subside while I sweep waste into corner piles in the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, mounds I’ll add to as the day’s hours stretch by.

Before I go to bed at night I wander the house with the dustbin and a small hand broom. I kneel to the floor and brush each pile into the silver scoop until only a thin line of dirt remains. I back the bin up and brush again: The line gets thinner. I back up and sweep, back up and sweep, capturing most of what’s there, though I’m aware every time that there’s just no way to get it all.

Debra Gwartney is the author of "Live Through This," a memoir, and co-editor of "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape." She teaches in the low-residency program at Pacific University and lives in Western Oregon.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...