Children find solace in unusual objects, like a grubby blanket, a mangy, eyeless teddy bear, or a matchbox truck with the doors ripped off. The comfort I found, at a particularly trying point in my childhood, took a dangerous and unhealthy form. It lured me in like Hansel and Gretel to the witch's gingerbread house. At one point, it controlled my actions and negatively affected my judgment. Little did I know the many years its powerful influence would last and how far it would reach into my life, relationships and housekeeping.
I was 4 years old in 1970. And my 34-year-old mother had just died of breast cancer after many frustrating months of chemotherapy and family-separating hospital stays.
Understandably, my family was encased in a deep and stunned sorrow. But, sad and lonely as I was, in the resiliency of childhood, I still wanted to eat junky cereal and play with my Barbies. One result of my mother's death was that my 1-year-old brother and I were left to a haphazard style of child care overseen by our disinterested teenage sisters, a harried widower father, and a string of underpaid housekeepers. Contrary to today's children of "helicopter parents" I was instructed to "entertain" myself on most days.
Often this involved the family black-and-white television, "The Beverly Hillbillies" and game shows interspersed with cleaning commercials for housewives. These commercials and their comforting positivity crept into my subconscious and planted a prejudice against dirt, disorder and any other form of "unpleasantness." In commercials, I found rest in the predictable triumphs of clean over dirt; control over chaos.
With one turn of the TV button, Madge would assure me that Palmolive dishwashing liquid softened my hands while I did the dishes. I felt comforted knowing that the stained side of the sink would soon be like the sparkling white side if the viewer used Comet cleanser with bleach; that the dark, greasy kitchen tile would become "Spic and Span" if the viewer used the product.
The message was that improvement was achievable, sadness could be erased. As a child who recently experienced a tremendous loss, I bought the idea. Then, like Athena springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, my inner housekeeper came to life.
The hours I spent watching morning television soon ended, however, when my father enrolled me in kindergarten. In the subsequent years, my education in and enthusiasm for household keeping lay dormant except for occasional purchases of Good Housekeeping magazines and used bookstore copies of "The New How to Keep House," and the revised edition of "Good Housekeeping's Guide to Successful Homemaking."
Once I was mistress of my own domain, my inner housekeeper returned in glory. Granted, I was the "lady" of only a grass hut on an island in the South Pacific where I lived teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer. But I delighted in sweeping the floor with my homemade grass broom, walloping my clothes in the river with my hand-hewn "lopwolop" stick, wringing clothes dry and hanging them up on my little shack's clothesline. I felt satisfied and happy when I cleaned the black soot from the glass of my kerosene lamp, filled it with oil and trimmed the wick. Occasionally, I'd borrow a rake to scratch neat lines in the hard rocky soil around my abode and shovel offerings dropped by free-roaming pigs out of the pathways.
When I returned home though, time and the experience of life in a developing country had mellowed me. I'd been fed with food prepared without sinks in kitchens with dirt floors. I'd lived, worked, and played beside my plump, rag-tag Pohnpeian family learning life lessons as I breathed.
They had let me walk with them through their lives for two years and witness events I'd pointedly avoided even thinking about. I was a child at play while my Pohnpeian family listened and watched from nearby. I witnessed animals being killed for food; a woman bearing a child without a doctor; the burden of breastfeeding shared between mothers, sisters and aunts; loud, emotional wailing over the death of a loved one; and even the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin, and the undecorated box, sans roses, being lowered into the red dirt of the earth. Dirt, unpleasant smells, noise and human chaos were the order of the day. The marrow of life had trumped order and reserve.
With the arrival of a husband, children and a dog, my inner housekeeper reappears only to shake her head at me in pity. In the past, I would roust her for psychological solace in the face of uncertainty. When, for example, as a new mother I thought my son required a clean crib sheet on a daily basis to avoid allergies, and that my daughter could avoid catching colds if I doused all of her bottles, toys and pacifiers in boiling water. Just like when I was younger, these housekeeping tasks comforted me, replaced my worry, and they made tangible the hope that my children were going to be healthy.
Today, I know that all the cleaning and organizing in the world is not going to bring back a loved one, erase an embarrassing experience or re-earn money spent frivolously. But believing in hope and reaching out to grasp its fringe is a foothold for me in "keeping going."
Palmolive has been replaced by Playtex gloves and a Swiffer Wet Jet and dry sweeper cloths have replaced the sponge mop. The tight control I attempted to exert over painful experiences has relaxed with the enduring love of family, a faith community and work I enjoy. The titles I seek out now at library book sales have more to do with gardening than cleaning. But they keep me hopeful and always searching for the clean, bright green shoots among the dirt and decaying leaves of life.
Hayden Donehue Shook taught English on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia as a Peace Corps volunteer. She lives on James Island with her family and teaches English as a second language at the Community Center of St. Matthew's and the English Language Institute at the College of Charleston.
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