Hi, we're Ingrid and Isabella, and we've got a cleaning problem

Famous actresses by day, at night they sought the "high" that only cleaning can bring


Isabella Rossellini
July 5, 1997 7:10PM (UTC)

Second to acting, Mother loved cleaning, which is not to say she loved even that above me. I'm sure she loved me more than cleaning, but what made her happiest was combining the two. We cleaned together.

"Never leave a room empty-handed," she would often say to me, meaning that there's always a glass in the living room that needs to be taken to the kitchen sink, a magazine in the bedroom that has to be returned to the living room, and so on. She taught me how to be orderly and how to clean house efficiently.

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I excelled at doing "la vaisselle," as we referred to it, always using the French word. (In English there is no single word, you have to combine two: "dish-washing.") Unfortunately, this skill my mother passed on to me is not of great use today, because most people have a dishwashing machine. But let me write about it anyway, because she perfected la vaisselle to a science.

Take a party, for example. It's over, everybody's leaving. First thing you do is eliminate everything that smells: ashtrays, wine bottles, food. If it smells bad, you aren't going to stay around long enough to do the job, so create an environment you can survive in. Plan to do the glasses last, when everything else is clean. You need lots of big surfaces to let them dry, because you don't dry glasses with the dish towel. Glasses will never look as good as when they're rinsed in the hottest water and left upside down to dry -- the hot water evaporates quickly, leaving them spotless. Wash the pots and pans first; better yet, wash them immediately after cooking, not after the party. Do the rest of la vaisselle in this order: plates first, silver second, serving plates and bowls last. You have to have two sinks or at least a sink and a plastic bucket. You clean and rinse dishes in separate containers. Don't try to do it all at once, the way many people do. (That really upset my mother -- she thought it was one of those ridiculous mistakes that are perpetuated for no reason, the most despicable kind of mistake because it's stupid.) Use a brush, not a sponge, to wash with -- the kind with a straight handle and a round tip is best. I still get mine in Sweden, where my mother bought hers. They are just perfect, you can do the glasses with one stroke.

When my stepfather, Lars, bought the Thibtre de Montparnasse in Paris, my mother rushed in to clean it. "That poor house-keeper," she told me, referring to the lady who generally did that job, "she had to work with the dirtiest rag and the most plucked-out broom. How can she do a good job? I told Lars, 'Make sure she has what she needs. You cannot clean with an unclean rag or sponge; that just lets you spread dirt around -- push it a little bit here, a little bit there. It doesn't help eliminate it.'"

I am still on the lookout today for the best sponges, best vacuum cleaner, best rags. When I come to New York, where I live, from Italy, I always pack one of those special wicker things that beats the dust out.

When the weather is good, I beat my carpets and pillows out the window. You should see how much dust comes out! The vacuum can't do it, it just cleans superficially. You can get great satisfaction at seeing all that dirt fly out.

I love cleaning. For both Mother and me, cleaning and organizing are soothing, though because it feels good we may do too much of it. It can get obsessive, and we have to watch out for that. My mother even had to go to a doctor -- she couldn't stop cleaning, and everything got a little out of hand. The doctor diagnosed that she was allergic to dust, which is why she felt so strongly about getting rid of it, but I know that wasn't it. She was seeking that "high" that cleaning gives. I know what it feels like; I'm always on the lookout for dust in secret places where I haven't looked before to see if any has landed there. If I see it, I can't stop thinking about it until I get rid of it. Dust brings out the hunting instinct in me, and I know I got that from Mamma.

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