Sunday, October 29, 2006

Cut Every Corner

Every Saturday was the same for me growing up. Every Saturday was Cleaning Day. The Mormons have a whole song about it, even. The only lyrics I still remember:

Saturday is a special day
It's the day we get ready for Sunday
We clean the house
And we shop at the store
So we don't have to work until Monday

Like all Mormon songs, it's sung with a forced cheeriness few people singing the song actually feel.

Saturdays were a special day in my house. They were the days I got ready for the divorce of my parents and the annihilation of my family that was surely imminent. People can't actually scream at each other this much and survive it, can they?

People can survive all kinds of things.

When my mom went back to work she tried to turn Friday nights into Cleaning Day. It was a disaster. All my dad wanted to do was watch TV. This was all he'd ever wanted to do on Saturday Cleaning Days, too, but at least on Saturdays he could mow the lawn or be useful out in the yard somewhere. I'd want to go to the mall with a friend or to a movie, or sometimes I'd have a babysitting gig lined up. I don't remember how my brother felt about it except that I figure it was about the same as he always felt about Cleaning Day: Worst day of the week ever.

My mom was the only one into having Cleaning Day on Friday nights, because it meant she could relax on Saturday and Sunday. My mom's big on Getting Things Over With.

My mom thought it was rotten her kids didn't volunteer to help more on Cleaning Day. "Kids do the chores" was just how she'd been brought up. Why weren't we more helpful? Why did we moan and groan through the dusting when she was the one doing all the hard stuff? The kitchen, the vacuuming, the bathrooms?

I never cleaned a bathroom in my life until I had my first apartment. My mother did all the hard things, all the big chores, because no one else could do them up to her standards.

"If you do it I'll just have to come behind you and do it all over again. That doesn't help me. You just dust."

As I explained in item #44 here, I really, really loathed dusting. I still do. I manage to do some about every three weeks, or sometimes my boyfriend does it--okay, half the time, my boyfriend does it--because, shit, here you just have to. Plus, two cats: You have to dust with a couple of cats in the house.

But the lasting legacy of Cleaning Day is that I can't enjoy my first day off, ever. I lead a life of shitty Sundays.

When I was about 20 my then-boyfriend and I went to see a counselor on account of what all had happened to us. He quit going after a couple of sessions, angry that this counselor had the nerve to expect him to work on his problems. He'd thought he'd just go and blame me for everything. But I kept going. I needed someone to talk to.

I told her how I spent every Saturday too depressed to do anything. She asked why I thought that was. I told her, "I get up, I want to clean the house all nice before I go shopping or do anything fun and all, but then I get overwhelmed by how much there is to do and I get depressed and I don't do any of it. Then, I'm depressed that I didn't do anything all day. I'm depressed that my whole day's been wasted."

I told her about Cleaning Day, a day punctuated by screaming and recrimination and arguing, a day awash in guilt, guilt, guilt.

"My mom gets up every Saturday morning of her life and gets right to work," I complained. "I can't seem to make myself do that."

The counselor made me promise that the next Saturday I'd get right up and go someplace. Any place. Browsing at the bookstore, feeding ducks in the park, anything.

"Just get out of the house and go do something for yourself," she said.

"I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Nothing will get done!"

"Nothing's getting done anyway."

"I can't just give up like that. I have to try harder."

"What you're trying isn't working. I want you to try this instead."

The next week I went back and reported that I had got right up, full of plans to clean the house, been derailed by a dumbass argument with my boyfriend, thrown up my hands in hopelessness, wondered why God was doing this to me, failed to clean anything, and felt depressed about all of it.

"What did we agree last week?"

"That I'd leave the house . . . ."

"Why didn't you?"

"The first thing my boyfriend said to me was 'Jesus Christ, this place is starting to look like my mother's.'"

"Is that a bad thing?"

"His mom never cleans anything, not even the kitchen countertops, and when you go over for a visit, she has to move stack after stack of books, magazines, and newspapers off the couch before you can sit down. So, yes."

"Does she seem happy to you, living that way?"

"Well . . . yeah, actually, kind of . . . ."

"Then why do you care?"

Why did I care? Because it's a MORAL FAILING to keep a dirty house. Didn't this woman know anything? Had she been raised in a BARN?

I quit going to the counselor. She just didn't get it.

One of these days I need to get over this. One of these days I need to shut the door on Cleaning Day and, especially, on the myth of Cleaning Day that I have in my head. The myth that says, "I'm going to get right up, put on my rattiest clothes, tie my hair back with a handerkchief, put on some nice music, and flit around the house making things spotless and Godly with a hymn in my heart and a smile on my face. Thus will I be redeemed."

It's not going to happen. Cleaning Day is a dream I hold onto for no good reason at all.

You'd think after all these years I could let it go.


JW said...

I didn't grow up Mormon, but Saturday in the W house was indeed Cleaning Day. My brother and I could watch cartoons until 10am, then Mom would swoop in, snap off the TV, and start bellowing her OWN song:


She was a clean freak, too, but that didn't get me off bathroom duty (or anything else). It just means that I've since had to learn what a "reasonable" clean is FOR ME. (The Boy is another story, as he grew up in a house where manly duties were limited to picking your own laundry up and mowing lawns.) Of course, we tear this place apart if Mom is going to visit.

Is is Laura Kipnis who writes that female obsession with a clean house has to do with genital self-loathing? Don't know if I buy it, but its an interesting though.

Lesley said...

Despite the fact that my mother is like your ex-boyfriend's mother, I somehow managed to internalize the whole "a dirty house is a moral failing" crap too. Not that my house is spotless. I just constantly feel guilty about the fact that it isn't.

I'm very fortunate, in that I can afford to pay someone to come in once a week and do the bulk of the stuff I hate. At this point, it's more the papers I don't go through as often as I should. So I still feel guilty. It sucks.

I wish I could offer you some hope that as you get older, the guilt will fade away. Sadly, no. I'm older than you.

gennimcmahon said...

We cleaned house every Saturday, as well. My dad would put on the then version of mix tapes (reel to reel, can ya believe it?) and we would listen to Elvis (for my mom) then the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, the Eagles Desperado album followed by the Doobie Bros China Grove, then wind up with some Moody Blues and then, finally, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. It was golden and marvelous, and so much a ritual that I feel like it's grounded into one place in time that can't be brought forward.

I do have the sense that a dirty house is a moral failing, but I compensate with the decision that there is a vast difference between my house looking like a museum and my house requiring that someone call the health department. We do, indeed, live here, and I'm okay with that being obvious. I'm not okay with my bathrooms looking like they should be on Twisty's tour of facilities.

It wasn't until I was an adult, feeling guilt over not cleaning enough, that I realized that my parents were total slobs, and that they were simply trying not to raise slobs. To transform the Saturday obligation, I actually have a chart (this is very, very pathetic and OCD, I know) and clean one section of the house each day. Nothing ever totally craters, yet I never have to feel the all or nothing of Saturday.

I used to work at a local hospice, and in the nurses' station was a sign that said, "No one ever died wishing they'd spent more time at work." I think I can easily substitue "cleaning house" for "at work."

ScottM said...

As a young kid, mom did lead Saturday morning cleanings. After she died, we'd careen from week to week doing a little disaster management, but generally letting things slide.

Our big issue was clutter; Dad's hideous about papers and collections, which sprawl over everything. To him cleaning was making things sanitary, while to me cleaning was being able to see the couch and floor when you were through. Now that I live with Jennifer, you can see the difference-- vacuuming and the like take a back seat to having a place to sit and easily clear-able surfaces. Somehow, dishes and laundry-- two of the biggest treadmills- are still my responsibility.

Venomous Kate said...

As a "Saturday is cleaning day" kind of mom, I wonder if this means I'm going to be paying for my kids therapy.

The truth (although I forbid you to tell my kids) is that I insist we clean house together on Saturday because I know Sunday's sports watching will limit the mess to one room, leaving me with the remainder of the house relatively clean. That makes my week a bit easier - I just have to do "big chunk cleaning" - while ensuring I don't wind up spending Saturday carting the kiddies all over town to keep them entertained.

ilyka said...

I insist we clean house together on Saturday because I know Sunday's sports watching will limit the mess to one room, leaving me with the remainder of the house relatively clean

Oh yeah, I think that was a big motivation for my mother, too, and it only makes sense when the alternative is "have no real down-time on the weekend at all and/or live in filth."

I'm really picking on my dad as much as anyone here, because of course no one's motivated to do much when the King of the Castle is sitting on his ass. Meaning, I got tired of getting yelled at to get out of the way while dusting the television.

antiprincess said...

guess I'll see y'all in hell then.

my place is a festering sore on the face of family life.

So far, nobody has called the police about my dirty kitchen. or bathroom. or living room. or bedroom. and believe me, they'd have grounds.

my parents used to punish me with extra cleaning chores over and above the usual routines, and I was punished a lot because I was such a bad kid - so scrubbing the kitchen floor today is associated with the times I had to scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. Yard work today is inextricably bound up in the rather unreasonable "hard labor" sentences of my youth.

Once I was grounded for a week for leaving a spoon in the kitchen sink.

today, it's my spoon, and my sink, and, well, fuck it.

antiprincess said...

which is not even to mention my exhusband, who, to punish me for a kitchen accident which resulted in melted plastic and some blackish smoke, took the ENTIRE KITCHEN APART and had me clean everything with de-greaser, antibacterial cleaner and bleach.

Any idea how many component pieces a stove has? a refrigerator? cabinet hinges?

down to the last nut, bolt, washer, o-ring, widget, doohickey and thingamabob.

nope, haven't gotten over it.

Dr. Alice said...


Are you still married to him?

And I'm not much of a cleaner either. I just hate doing it.

antiprincess said...

hell no.

I am now happily infesting a new place with a new, improved, 110% more slovenly husband.

moonie said...

Well, I'm glad to see that I'm not alone :-) My best friend is one of those "Saturday morning cleaners", and simply can't wrap her head around the fact that I leave my dishes in the sink overnight, and get depressed about how my place looks, but don't do anything about it. In my mind, the fact that I clean my bathroom every week or so is plenty.

Sage said...

I'm like antiprincess, and also have a lovely slovenly guy with whom to enjoy my dungheap. Except my mom was different. We also had a big clean-up day: December 21st. Just before Christmas every year, we'd clean up as a way of making a path for Santa. The rest of the year, when someone walked across the carpet, it crunched. I kid you not.

Ilyka, I'm stuck on the counsellor trying to get you to go out on Saturdays, but failing to grasp the severity of the issue for you. I'm trying to help a student with debilitating perfectionism issues. I advised her to lower or let go of such high expectations of herself. What's the worst that will happen? She'll still be lovable and valuable if she gets a 70 on a test, or if she makes a fool of herself, or if she looks like crap one day. But I'm not sure how to take her from where she is to a healthier place to be. But maybe she just can't get there from here.

Margi said...

Monday, Saturday, Thursday, Wednesday -- it didn't matter. If MY momma got up and started running the vacuum, WOE BETIDE the kid who didn't ALSO get off his/her respective ass!

And that does not include moving your feet so she could sweep under them. That was a guaranteed GoToHell look.