As a child, I became obsessed with straightening up. Confused and uncertain as to why things felt so wrong between my mother, my father, and myself, I started putting the house in order.
My mother never bothered to sort the utensils after washing them — she just tossed them in the drawer. At the age of seven, I stood on a phone book and meticulously sorted forks, spoons, and knives into different slots. This I could manage. This I could control.
My father was an English professor and used the dining-room table as an office: ledgers, bills, receipts, correspondence, exams, and grading sheets littered the surface, spilling over onto the floor beside his chair. (We ate a lot of dinners on our laps.) I occasionally tried to organize my father’s papers. My father would stew silently, filling the room with his anger, never saying a word. Within a few days, the papers would make their way back onto the dining-room table with a vengeance.
My mother collected odds and ends in china dishes and little woven baskets, which she kept all over the house. They were filled with packages of gum or candy, bottles of hand cream, emery boards, pencil nubs, crochet hooks, newspaper clippings. She joked that you could find a jar of lip balm within a foot, no matter where you stood in the house. I tried it once: she was right.
I urged my mother to consolidate her junk. “How long have these cinnamon hearts been in here?” I’d ask her. “Why don’t you throw these old Kleenexes out? None of these pens even work! Why do you do this?”
My mom would laugh at first. Then, when she saw that I was serious, she’d grow quiet, and her eyes would take on a sadness that I recognized from her bouts of depression. “I need it,” she’d tell me. “I need my things.”
My parents’ lives were a mess, and I had somehow put myself in charge of cleaning them up. I was a young girl with shelves of books lined up alphabetically, drawers of folded underwear, and boxes of photographs in chronological order — a young girl desperately trying to make sense of her life and her place in her family.
I still obsessively pick up and put away. I bristle if I see a stray envelope, a pen that doesn’t work, a loose battery, a couple of rubber bands. Sometimes the impulse to put things in order is so strong, so panicky, it feels as if my life depends on it. I know it doesn’t, though. Not anymore.
Sarah Lucille Selecky
Victoria, British Columbia
In her late seventies, mom isolated herself from neighbors, friends, and family. My father suffered from Parkinson’s disease and lived at a nursing home. Mom’s only real friends were the radio and TV talk-show hosts who kept her company. If they told a joke, gave a recipe, or offered a helpful hint she wanted to remember, she’d jot it down verbatim in a notebook or on the back of an envelope. When she’d accumulated enough notebooks and other papers, she’d put them in a twenty-gallon garbage bag and toss it into the den or the basement.
Her split-level house was filled with those bags, and also heaps of newspapers and magazines and cartons filled with appliances and gadgets my technophobic mother would order from commercials on TV but never use.
A week after a gallbladder operation, Mom’s heart simply gave out. When my wife and I came to clean up the house, the den was piled so high with bags and boxes that there was no room to walk through it. The sight of the mountains of trash was numbing. As we cleared bags and scraped the grime from the hallway to make a neat area for visitors, I suddenly understood how trapped my mother must have felt in her home, in her marriage, in her life.
Emptying out the house to put it on the market, my wife and I spent weeks sifting through the heaps, each scrap of paper a muffled cry from my mother’s lonely years. Most difficult was the discovery of angry letters I’d written to my mother or notes she’d made to herself about thoughtless things I’d said. Only then did I begin to feel the true pain of this needy woman who’d surrounded herself with junk as a substitute for love.
My grandfather had built our garage when my dad was a child, and Dad was fond of telling me how Granddad had kept everything organized in empty Prince Albert tobacco cans. My dad used peanut cans, but he was just as orderly. He taught me the proper way to sweep, how to use cat litter to clean up oil spills, and to separate nails from the rest of the trash.
My dad was particular about where he kept his tools. “Everything has a place, and it damn well better be there,” he’d say. I spent the better part of my summers sweeping, sorting, and making sure that the needle-nose pliers were in the top drawer. I promised myself that, when I got older, I would leave everything wherever it happened to fall and learn to live with dust.
Ten years later, I had lived up to my promise — and had a string of arrests, a seven-year prison sentence, and a failed marriage to prove it. My dad was very sick with multiple sclerosis, but he stuck by me. I was beginning to realize that, if I was going to clean up the mess my life was in, I would have to sweep and sort.
Two years after I got out of prison, I had a new life, a new marriage, a new daughter, and a newfound respect for my dad. He died on December 20, 2000. I cleaned out the garage for my mom, who told me to take the toolboxes and the peanut cans.
I now live in a small apartment overflowing with toys and books. It’s not always neat, but the needle-nose pliers are in the top drawer.
When I was a child, I accidentally dropped a glass bottle of soda in a drugstore. Before we left, Mom made me apologize to the person who was mopping up the spill. I was terribly embarrassed.
Another time, I was in a drugstore looking at toys when I had to vomit. I ran down the aisles looking for Mom but couldn’t find her. Remembering how she’d made me apologize for the spilled soda, I threw up into my cupped hands, rather than make a mess. Then I walked through the store, carrying my vomit in front of me, searching for my mother.
For many years, I remained self-conscious about making a mess that someone else might have to clean up. In my late twenties, I lived on a commune and often worked in the kitchen. One day, while cooking dinner for twenty people, I dropped a glass jar of dried beans on the old wooden floor. Beans and shards of glass flew everywhere.
“Don’t worry,” someone said, reaching for the broom and dustpan. “You already feel bad enough about spilling it; you shouldn’t have to clean it up, too.”
It was such a generous thing to say that I’ve adopted it as a rule. I try always to clean up other people’s messes; they’re never as difficult to take care of as my own.
On Thanksgiving Day, my eldest brother, Michael, lay down on his bed, braced a rifle between the wall and his chest, and pulled the trigger.
My family members had drifted apart, moving to different states, but my son, Jesse, lived just a few miles from my brother, so he took on the task of cleaning up.
While I frantically called airlines to schedule a flight, my son dragged Michael’s bloodstained mattress out the door. While my youngest brother prepared the eulogy, my son filled a bucket with warm, soapy water and began to scrub the blood-spattered walls, carpet, bed frame, and nightstand. While my youngest sister scrambled to pack clothes for her three small children and catch a late flight out, Jesse covered the box spring with a clean blanket and placed pillows against the headboard. While my older sister waited at the airport for my parents to arrive, my son surveyed the room once more, making sure there was nothing he’d missed.
By the time I saw the bedroom, it looked as if Michael had merely left for vacation. A terry-cloth robe hung on the bathroom door, suede slippers waited at the foot of the bed, and a worn pair of jeans lay draped over a leather chair. There was no sign of Michael’s desperation or black depression: just a room filled with the soft ticking of an antique clock and the bright white light of a winter’s day.
I used to hate coming home from school to find my mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor. It made me feel guilty. As the oldest daughter, I knew I should have helped out more around the house. But my mother didn’t teach me much about housecleaning; it took less time to do it herself.
Besides doing housework, my mother taught Sunday school, led Scout troops, baked bread, sewed clothes, and canned and froze vegetables. She never hired any help. You didn’t spend money on something like that, and, besides, it would have been lazy. She never said as much, but that’s the message I got.
At the end of the day, my mother always put on a dress and lipstick to greet my father at the door. I adored my father. He used to tell me he’d fallen in love with my mother because of how sweet and pretty she was. He’d always finish by saying, “And you’re exactly like her.” I found this flattering, but discomforting. I didn’t think I could live up to his assessment.
Often, after dinner, my father would scratch my back on the TV-room couch. After a few minutes of this, he’d unfasten my bra, reach around, and fondle my breasts. Then, hearing the sounds of my mother cleaning up in the kitchen, he’d hook me back together and snap, “Now get in there and help your mother!”
I was married at a time before men would consider sharing the housework. Whenever I washed the kitchen floor, I’d leave the bucket of dirty water out where my husband would see it. Did I think he would love me more because I’d washed the floor? He never mentioned it.
Our second child was diagnosed as mentally retarded and wore diapers until he was eight. Changing diapers on a big child having a tantrum was an ordeal. One day, while cleaning my screaming son’s butt, I had an epiphany. All through my marriage, I’d been trying to be like my mother. Suddenly I saw that I could not — should not — be like her. I started down a career path, bowed out of my volunteer work, and hired cleaning help.
Our family is much happier now that I’m not so tired, so anguished over every mess. The two women who clean for me have become great friends of mine. They fill my home with laughter and song and leave it shining. But they don’t get down on their knees to clean. If anybody should get down on her knees, it’s me, to them.
After my parents divorced, my grandmother would clean our two-bedroom apartment to help out my mother. My sisters and I shared one bedroom, so there wasn’t much space. My grandmother would throw away anything she felt wasn’t necessary to survival, including cherished stuffed animals, drawings, and paintings. While moving beds, dismantling shelves, and soaking curtains, she’d shower my sisters and me with disapproval.
I’m now in my midthirties, and my grandmother continues to berate me. She’s called me a “loser,” told me that I am “nothing,” and insisted that there is something wrong with me because I don’t have a man. I have a successful career and am proud that I haven’t settled for the wrong man just for the sake of marrying. Still, Grandma sees me as flawed. She has no friends, gripes constantly, and, aside from the occasional trip to the casinos, has nothing to occupy her time but cleaning — not just her home, either, but my mother’s home, my older sister’s home, my home.
Over the years, we have tried to draw boundaries with Grandma, but she simply ignores us. If we tell her not to come over to clean, she shows up anyway, bearing a coffee can full of soapy water, some old rags, and a towel — all she needs to wash windows, porches, basements, pantries, refrigerators, and stoves. She sweats and grunts and says, “Well, shit,” whenever she disapproves of something in our homes. She cleans from nine till five, stopping only to eat lunch and to yell at anyone else who takes a break. We’ve tried to convince Grandma simply to visit, offering to fix dinner, talk, or play cards. But unless there is something for her to clean, she does not want to come.
I finally put my foot down the day she accused me of using her cleaning rag. When I calmly tried to explain that I had no use for it, she called me stupid and yelled, “Screw you!” I told her to get out of my house.
It was the first time I’d ever stood up to her like that. And it worked. She left.
Growing up, I kept my room so messy that no one could walk through it. Maybe if my room was disgusting enough, I thought, my mother would stop going through my trash and reading my journals, foraging for evidence against me. Despite my father’s threats to take all my junk to the dump, I maintained my safety zone of spreading piles.
In elementary school, I would hide from my parents by climbing into my closet and burying myself beneath the clothes, toys, and papers. Sometimes it worked. Other times they would find me and yell at me. I lived in fear and shame — and a messy room.
One day, my grandmother came to our house to help me clean my room. I was scared. This was my stuff. I didn’t want someone else touching it. We set up a folding chair in the middle of the room, and she sat on it all afternoon, asking where things went, which items I wanted to keep, what we could discard. I was amazed: someone cared what I thought. We filled many garbage bags. When we finally opened the door, I ignored my mother’s congratulations and my father’s relieved “Finally.” I had done it with my grandma. She loved me. I could trust her.
When my dad asked me to go to an AA meeting with him, I cringed inside. He was celebrating his anniversary: three years. I knew little about those three years, except that he was happier now. I told him I would go. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of what had made him so contented.
By the time I heard the honk of my father’s Plymouth, I was halfway through my second pot of Folgers.
“What’s this going to be like, anyway?” I asked him in the car. “Am I going to have to say something?”
“No, not really. You’ll probably just have to introduce yourself.”
I had an idea how the introductions went at these meetings. They always ended with those words. I had said them before, but in private. These people were strangers.
Why was this all so hard? We were going to celebrate my father’s success, but I felt as if I were being led to the slaughter. Beside me sat a man who’d always been known for his biting sarcasm and wicked temper. Now he looked pleasant, calm, healthy; he must have dropped ten pounds. It had been ages since I’d felt as good as he looked. If a transformation had occurred in him, maybe there was hope for me, too.
As we pulled into the parking lot across the street from the church, I felt slightly less worried. Perhaps it would be OK. I would say those words — not to please my father or because of peer pressure, but because they were true: I was an alcoholic.
I’d like to report that I never had another drink, but I can’t. I didn’t stay sober even for twenty-four hours, and I didn’t make it back to an AA meeting for five years. I guess I had a whole lot more to lose before I could seek help. But a seed was planted. I recently celebrated an anniversary of my own: my dad passed on his twelve-year sobriety chip to me.
Miriam was a seventy-two-year-old homeless woman who had just been raped in an alley on the North Side of Chicago, and I was her rape-victim advocate. My job was to provide her with unconditional support during her emergency-room exam, interview with detectives, and reunion with her family.
Miriam was so worn down by her hard life that this cruel assault was just one more inconvenience to her. Her clothes were wet and ruined, the temperature outside was below zero, and she had already missed the 10:30 P.M. deadline for a bed at the women’s shelter. She had no family to notify of her present situation. I felt helpless.
During her exam, I noticed that, although Miriam clearly had not bathed in a long time, she was wearing brand-new white underwear. A knot grew in my throat when I saw a few packages of new underwear stashed in her battered tote bag. Here was a woman who couldn’t afford a place to stay or food to eat, yet she had obviously changed her underwear before coming to the emergency room.
Miriam shed no tears during the three hours we spent in the ER, but her eyes were filled with an intense sadness. She seemed in no hurry to leave: she had no place to go. As I helped her get dressed, I told her that the organization I worked for would provide a night in a hotel for any victim who didn’t have a place to stay or didn’t feel safe returning home. She casually asked if the hotel had a bathtub. I assured her that it did. It was then that she finally began to cry.
I sit on the edge of our bed and look around, deciding what to clean up first. There’s the towel; I’ll start with that. And there’s my husband’s T-shirt, still lying where the paramedics threw it after they ripped it off him.
I’m tired. I haven’t eaten in so long I don’t even feel hungry. I have to sit down again. No, I have to clean up. I move the heavy bed back to where it was. (They pushed it aside with ease.) And all these plastic tubes and empty boxes with medical names on them — I’ll throw those away. Shall I wash the towel or just toss it in the trash with the rest? I’m going to sit down, just for a minute. How can I clean this room? How can I decide what to dispose of and what to keep? All I can think of are my husband’s last moments.
It was his first day out of the rehabilitation hospital. The physical therapy had been more painful than the knee operation itself. He walked slowly into our house on crutches and said, “I feel cold. My chest feels very cold.” He asked for two Tylenol. He was worried that he hadn’t paid the cable bill. He lay down on our bed, and I covered him with a sheet. (I wonder where that sheet is now.)
Everything happened so fast. My husband called out, “I think I’m going to faint,” and held up his hands to me. I reached out to grab them. I knew he was having a heart attack. His hands dropped to his sides again, and I pulled them up to my chest, close to my heart. I screamed out his name and started giving him CPR. “Don’t leave me!” I kept yelling.
I remembered something that I had heard while growing up in my Mexican American community: “Don’t call the name of the one who’s dying. You must let his soul go peacefully. If you call him, he cannot leave this world.” But I did not want my husband to leave this world — to leave me. So I called his name several times, pushing on his chest and blowing air into his lungs. “Open your eyes!” I shouted. “Please, open your eyes!”
I called 911. I called his sister. I called the priest. They all came, and he was rushed to the hospital. When the doctors approached me in the hall later, I knew it was all over. I called the funeral home. I felt so tired, as if I had carried my husband all the way to the hospital in my arms.
That was days ago. I still feel his love, but I’m surrounded by the mess the paramedics left behind. It’s time to clean up. I tell myself it’s all right to begin.
During the winter at Baker Correctional Institution, count was at 8 P.M. and usually ended by 8:30. On this cold February night, though, the count was taking forever. It was already 9:45. We had missed all of Cops and most of America’s Most Wanted, and lights would go out in fifteen minutes.
I quietly played solitaire on the upper rack while Alabama, on the lower, listened to country music on his Walkman and paged through a Hustler. I was reshuffling, hoping they’d clear count soon, when I glanced out the cell window and saw twenty or thirty guards walking toward our dorm, pushing a dozen laundry carts with them. They were dressed like storm troopers: black clothes and black stomping boots. Something was going down.
“It’s a major shakedown, Home,” Bama said. “Looks like they already hit a few dorms on the south yard. No wonder count’s taking so fucking long.”
They entered our dormitory next. Sergeant Borg, an ex-marine, marched down our wing, shouting, “Now listen up! I figure every swinging dick on this hallway has something illegal in his locker. I’m giving you ten minutes’ amnesty.”
Other officers were setting blankets down on the hallway floor.
“Throw out all your contraband,” Borg continued. “We’ll be patting you and going through your lockers and tossing your mattresses. If we find one thing that doesn’t belong to you, you’re getting cuffed and hauled to confinement. We already did three dorms tonight, and I’m tired and I want a cigarette, so if you want to fuck with someone, it ain’t tonight, and it ain’t me.”
With that, Borg and his guards marched off the wing, their bootsteps echoing. The moment they were gone, the hallway exploded. Inmates slammed open their lockers and rummaged through their property.
“They can’t shake us down now,” I said, digging through my clothes and legal work to fish out all my contraband. “Lights go out soon.”
“They’re on duty till midnight,” Bama said, returning to his Hustler. “They can leave the lights on all night if they want.”
“And how come you’re so fucking calm?” I asked, stacking things beside my locker. “You’ve got garlic powder, chili powder, and sandwiches you stole out of the kitchen. They’ll lock your ass up.”
“They want my stuff,” Bama said, “they’ll have to come in here and get it.”
“You’re gonna get locked up!”
“I’m already in prison,” Bama said with a shrug, looking at the centerfold.
I tossed my contraband onto the blanket outside my cell, just as the other inmates were doing: a wooden ruler and chalk I’d stolen from my GED class; six highlighters and two bottles of white-out I’d bought from an inmate who worked in administration; about forty colored pens.
Then I picked up my harmonica, a small pocket Hohner I’d bought for four packs of tobacco. I had just started learning a few good blues tunes on it. Cradling it in both hands, I stepped into the hallway.
By now, the blankets were heaped with extra rolls of toilet paper, latex gloves, illegal medications and vitamins, rolls of duct tape, pieces of wire for radio repairs, and lots of books, none of them from the prison library. (The guards would later nickname our wing “the reading room,” because of all the books.)
I tossed my harmonica on the pile and stared as it disappeared in the rain of discarded junk.
“Fire in the hole!” someone shouted. The guards were stomping back down the hallway, twenty of them this time. I scampered onto my rack. The shakedown was about to begin.
“You shoulda kept the fucking mouth harp,” Bama whispered.
“I’m not about to get my ass locked up,” I whispered back. “When they find your shit and put the cuffs on you, don’t be whining to me.”
The guards came down the hall, tied up the blankets with the contraband inside, and dragged them all away. After two minutes of silence, the lights went out.
Bowling Green, Florida
There were twenty-five patients on the psychiatric ward, mostly women in their thirties, like me. Besides seeing our psychiatrists once a day, we went to groups. The first was a “community meeting” at 8 A.M. All day long, there were groups about anger, substance abuse, grief, and so on. The last group was another community meeting. If we didn’t show up, our absence was noted on our charts.
On Thursdays we had “community meal.” Most of our meals were regular hospital fare served on plastic trays, but once a week, a planning committee of patients met (in a group, of course) to design a dinner menu, make a shopping list, and assign chores. On my first Thursday, I signed up for dishwashing.
I don’t remember what we ate that night, but I do remember washing the dishes after dinner, immersing my hands in the hot, sudsy water, diving into the simple, physical task with a sense of purpose that surprised me. I hadn’t done anything useful in more than a week. As I rinsed, the tap water flowed over my scarred wrist like a balm. I washed my share and the other dishwasher’s, too.
My wife boasts that there isn’t a diaper I won’t change. “The messier the better,” she says.
Her girlfriends want me to give their husbands lessons. My father watches and shakes his head in admiration and disbelief.
“Three in diapers,” my mother says, “just like I had, except your father wouldn’t be in the same room.”
Even before my first child arrived, I volunteered for the job. By now, I’ve changed so many diapers I can do it with my eyes closed: unseal, wipe once, slip the load out, wipe a few more times, flatten the fresh diaper and slide it under, pull snug the fasteners, bind the soiled diaper into a tight ball and lob it toward the back door.
A dirty diaper is one cleanup job that can’t wait until you’re in the mood. It does, however, give me a chance to be alone with each of my daughters. With toilet training will come a distance between us. This closeness will be replaced by the awkwardness fathers and daughters feel because we are constructed differently. For now, though, I’ll continue to do the job everyone else wants to avoid, thankful for the opportunity.
Being an itinerant tree planter may have been the happiest experience of my working life. Each day I wore what I had worn the day before — often several layers of it. Showers or baths were a rarity, available only when there was enough time and money to rent a motel room.
I didn’t miss bathing, though. In fact, I reveled in the transformation of my body; once freed from the daily assault of water and soap, my skin never dried out or became itchy, and my hair grew thick and shiny.
Upon arriving in a new town, the other tree planters and I would rush to the supermarket, wild-eyed at the brightly lit aisles, and fill our carts with cheap treats: potato chips, chocolate milk, Little Debbie cakes. We were a disreputable-looking bunch: matted hair covered with filthy, squashed baseball caps; jeans coated first with a layer of glue against the briars, then with mud from the site. But the cashier would smile and say, “Hello, dear, you workin’ for International Paper? My husband works there.” Or, “Y’all planting for Coastal Lumber? I’ve got an uncle over there.”
These were company towns in the South. They’d welcome us and take our out-of-state checks, the dirt on our skin somehow proof of our honesty. One day, the mother of a man who’d been a tree planter took Southern hospitality a step further: “Y’all look like you’d enjoy a shower,” she said. “Why don’t you come over to my house and take one there?”
Sunday afternoon found us jammed into the woman’s modest living room, the TV murmuring discreetly while we made awkward small talk with her and her bemused husband, who hadn’t expected to be entertaining nine filthy strangers in his house that day. One by one, we took showers in her green bathroom, lathered up with her soap and shampoo, and dried off with her towels. I remember the steamy air, the water beading all over the floor, the pile of neatly stacked clean towels and the mound of dirty ones. Afterward, I felt a mixture of shy gratitude and embarrassment sitting in her living room with my damp hair hanging down my back.
I had been assigned to feed her every morning since I’d started working at the rest home the week before. She weighed all of sixty pounds, her tiny frame permanently bent almost knees-to-chin. I wedged pillows here and there to hold her upright so she could eat. Such tiny bites she took, spitting back any pulp or remnants after a long gumming.
One morning, I found her dead. The head nurse came in, said, “She sure is,” and told me to go ahead and clean her up.
I didn’t even know where to start. I washed her face and ears gently, as if she might awaken. Her ears were big, with long lobes hanging down. Then I washed her hands, the exaggerated joints of her fingers wrapped in translucent skin. I wondered about all she had seen and heard and felt in her ninety-two years.
When Shirley, another aide, came to check on my progress, she snapped, “You should’ve been done by now.” Silently, lamely, I helped Shirley, who was brisk and efficient and didn’t take long to finish.
Jennie C. Warren