War of the dust-busters

Cheryl Mendelson may have written "Home Comforts," but my grandmothers could out-scrub her any day.


Pamela Gordon
February 15, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

I come from a tribe of serious homemakers, generations of women for whom
the adage "cleanliness is next to godliness" was chiseled onto their DNA.

At Grandma Leah's holiday table, we saw our reflections in the polished
cutlery and serving dishes. When Great Aunt Fanny died the neighbors crowded into her bedroom to marvel at her flawlessly arranged drawers. A cousin once balked at the rust stains in my kitchen sink and begged me to let her bleach them out.

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My mother is so fastidious, the sheets and towels in her linen closet are
tied in bundles with ribbon. Pencils bounce off the tight drum of her hospital-cornered sheets. And feel free to eat a meal off her kitchen floor.

But the diva of all dust-busters was my mother's mother. Every summer,
Rose was on her knees on a rubber pad sanitizing the porch floor of the cottage we rented, then making her way down the stairs, still on her knees, cleaning each one as she went. Her counters glistened. Her mirrors were fingerprint-free. She came after us with a broom if she caught us on her Victorian velvet sofa.

I am the aberration in this gene pool.

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I inherited the sofa that Rose kept in perfect condition for 40 years.
Within a year, the upholstery was tattooed with cat pee.

My early indifference to housekeeping wasn't entirely a case of rebelling against the fascism of my family's all-consuming pursuit of cleanliness. I just had other things on my mind. Given the option of busing a dish or reading, I always read. Staying up late arguing about art, literature and politics captured my
imagination more than cleaning the refrigerator. Traveling whenever time
and money allowed won out over battling mildew.

Despite myself, I was well-trained. As the blush of post-college freedom
paled, I started to care more about a clean, welcoming home. Stocked cupboards, freshly made beds and organized closets filled me with a sense of peace. When I married, I received all manner of domestic utensils and tucked into home life with a vengeance.

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The problem is, while I now cherish a clean apartment, I still lack the attention span for serious cleaning. No matter how often I de-scuzz the vegetable bin, wash the baseboards or pull hair from the tub drain, I never do it as frequently or as thoroughly as my grandmothers did. I will never meet the standards set by the women of my clan.

Maybe that's why Cheryl Mendelson's 884-page compendium of household
hints and sociological observations, "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House," reads like an encyclopedia-size slap on the wrist.

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I began reading accounts of this doorstop-size tome even before it came
out in November. The idea of a contemporary book about keeping house both inspired my contempt (no one could best the education I received) and filled me with dread (here would be published evidence of how I've failed to live up to my training). Perversely, I succumbed to reading it. I came away impressed by its cleaning and organizing tips and its detailed research, but disgusted by its morally
superior tone.

Mendelson heads up the book with a smug treatise on the virtues of homemaking guaranteed to make anyone who doesn't change the sheets twice a week feel inadequate. She follows with an exhaustive catalog of everything you need to know to run a household. Seventy-two chapters are divided into eight sections, with titles such as "Carefully Disregarding Care Labels" and "Peaceful Coexistence With Microbes." They read like a to-do list posted by my grandmothers from the
grave.

Actually, Mendelson's sources on housekeeping are not so far from that. Mendelson, who grew up on a farm until she was 13, learned housekeeping from her grandmothers. Dueling matriarchs, one Appalachian, the other an Italian immigrant, each had, as Mendelson puts it, "a right way to keep
house (the one she had been brought up with) and a wrong way (all
others)." "Home Comforts" is her attempt to preserve the teachings of her grandmothers, and then best them by becoming the reigning queen of domestic arts.

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Mendelson lacks ambivalence about assuming a place in her homemaking
dynasty. I, on the other hand, am still making peace with my ancestral housekeeping ghosts.

Some parts of keeping house I've got licked. I'm obsessive about neat
drawers. Mixing colors and whites in the washing machine is sacrilege. Meticulous about folding laundry, I can out-fold anyone in America. (That includes you, Cheryl.) I stack food in the cabinets by size and category and have the weekly shopping down to a science.

I'm not big on mending. Not great with dusting. Don't sweep in hard-to-reach places. And the only time I turn the mattresses is when we move. (Mendelson recommends turning mattresses once a season; when I tell my mother this she responds with horror, insisting, "I turn the mattress once a month." There you go.)

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For overall upkeep, I'm on the yo-yo plan. I swear I'm going to
be good, starting Monday. Then, I put it off until Wednesday. The mess increases. I set myself a point at which I must begin cleaning -- let's say when I can no longer see the floor in my daughter's room. Soon after, giddiness sets in, followed by no longer caring and, then, dementia, when I decide to see
how bad it can get.

Finally, I'm forced to take action -- because company is coming. I put a
few things away. Momentum builds and I start filling garbage bags. Then I start to clean. I see dirt that I was blind to for days, for weeks. I'm disgusted. I'm penitent. I dig out the cleaning products, pay homage to my foremothers by donning rubber gloves and scrubbing the toilet.

Afterward, catharsis. The living room looks so pure. I steer my kids
away from playing in it. The empty sink is such an inspiring void I don't dare leave a dirty dish anywhere near it. Slowly, however, the tide of schmutz begins to rise, and the cycle begins again.

It doesn't help that my husband is domestically challenged. He can pass a
bursting bag of garbage, positioned blatantly by the door, without even considering taking it out. He prefers chairs to hangers when it comes to putting away his clothes. He leaves his wet towel draped over the bedpost every morning. And when he's stuck in the house with the kids alone: cyclone time. (To be fair, when he puts his mind to it he can clean with the best of them: He scours a mean tub and vacuums like an Olympian. But I have to plead with him to do these things, which he considers a favor to me.)

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Having two kids, ages 5 and 2, doesn't help, either. Nothing short
of straitjacketing them would keep my apartment in order for more than 10 minutes. (Mendelson, I'm certain, does not have a child under 5; if she does, I'll just kill myself now.) Having children, I once heard on the car
radio as I was racing to pick one kid up after dropping off the other,
decreases marital satisfaction by 75 percent. Of course, marital satisfaction is a relative phrase. In my husband's universe, it means sex. In mine, it means swept floors.

"Why aren't we ever romantic with each other anymore?" he
demands.

"Why can't you ever clean the kitchen in under three hours?" I
growl.

Ultimately, keeping the house in order is about feeling in control. For
my grandmothers, my mother, my cousins, it was and is about asserting their values in the domain in which they feel most powerful. It's about creating shelter from the storm of the outside world. It's about sweeping the cobwebs of sickness, sadness and tragedy out of the corners and over the threshold for as long as possible. It's about keeping chaos at bay.

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I tolerate chaos in my big, fat, sloppy life in ways my relatives don't.
But I still feel overwhelmed. There's a solution to this. I can hire someone to help me clean. And I plan to, just as soon as my financial ship comes in, right after I pay off my credit card debt and right before I buy a car that starts without my having to pray to it every morning.

I have a vision of household perfection: guest towels in the bathroom
without peanut butter handprints on them. Little soaps in a delicate dish by the sink. Wood floors that gleam. Beds that stay made. A dining room table sans clumps of hardened oatmeal. Cassettes, CDs and videos that never, ever get separated from their boxes. A sense of peace when I walk into the apartment, the only thing in motion a stray dust mote swirling in a patch of sun.

I imagine I may achieve this in increments: as my 2-year-old grows out of
pushing the puzzles I have just stacked on a shelf right back onto the floor; as I have more time to work and earn money to pay someone to help me. I run my fingers across the glossy pages of the "Hold Everything" catalog, and dream.

In the meantime, my grandmothers tsk-tsk from the beyond.

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Pamela Gordon

Pamela Gordon is a freelance writer in New York whose articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Poets & Writers and New Times, among others.

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