Tuesday, December 30, 2003


As soon as I'm done here, I'm going to start cleaning my room. Again. I have the theory down pat, now I just need to put in the practice. And I have the time today, I don't have any other errands except my homegroup meeting tonight. I even have the energy. And it will thwart the desires of small children, which is one of my great joys in life (my little cousins, who are staying with us all week, love to play The Sims all day long, but I don't let them into my room when I'm here).

The last few days I have been recovering from Christmas. On my birthday, after writing the previous thought-provoking survey, I went out shopping with Caroline as I had planned. The Jessica McClintock outlet was rather a disappointment: they had very little in my size, and the prices were not as cut-rate as they had been in the past. Last year I bought five gowns for under two hundred dollars, the year before I bought seven for $150, but this time I only got two gowns and a blouse-and-skirt for $220. I think this might be the last time I plan Jessica McClintock on my birthday. The Great Mall was less of a bust, I bought five karaoke CDs of big band and jazz standards, and got a big bagful of bargains at the Gap Outlet (I have decided to embrace my "straight" look... it keeps people guessing). But in general I bought less stuff for more money, and was vaguely dissatisfied.

I've been doing a lot of cleaning the last few days. Saturday I put the dining table back in order and put away all the china and silver that had already been washed. On Sunday I finished cleaning up after the Christmas dinner. Grandmother has been in bed with holiday exhaustion on top of her cold, so everything was just sitting there in the kitchen, stacking up higher and higher. So I loaded the dishwasher twice and washed all the crystal and remaining china by hand, and then started on the roasting pans and whatnot. And then yesterday I got my nails done, bought a few more things at the Gap (great after-Christmas sales), picked up the party favors for the Living Sober New Year's Eve Dance, and bought a new pair of black dress shoes to wear to same (something I've been intending to do for ages, since the black dress shoes I currently own always give me blisters)... which isn't really "cleaning," but can be considered "cleanup" errands, and felt very satisfying anyway.

And I've found that, though my temper tends to be a little short after doing an hour or so of dish-washing or rug-vaccuming, I don't seethe with resentment and anger while and immediately after I'm peforming the chores (as I usually do). In fact, I'm actually giving some thought to having a weekly Chore Day here at the house. A day to mop the kitchen and bathroom, to degrease the range, to scrub out the toilet, to do some laundry, to vacuum rugs, to run a duster about the knick-knacks. Perhaps not all at once, because none of these chores really needs to be done on a weekly basis. It's only people like Grandmother who think so.

Grandmother was a career housewife, spending at least eight hours (and often twelve) every day actively engaged in cleaning, cooking, mending, child-rearing, grocery-shopping, and errand-running... but I don't think she ever really thought about housewifery in terms of a professional job, as many modern women do. Taking care of this house and its inhabitants was a full-time (and then some) job, and she performed it admirably for a very long time. The thing is, when you get old you're supposed to retire, not because you "deserve" the rest but because you are no longer capable of doing your job. The whole point of being old is to physically decay.

But Grandmother doesn't see it that way. To her, aging is an illness that should be got over. To her, housework isn't a job that you get to retire from, it's a condition of life, as common and necessary as defecating (which also becomes increasingly difficult as one ages, but still has to be done). To her, a woman's personal worth is measured by her ability to keep a dust-free, clean, and visibly tidy house and to cook three delicious and nutritious meals every day (as well as by her modest behavior and conservative appearance, and the behavior and appearance of her descendants regardless of whether or not she raised them herself).

What makes all of the above very difficult is that none of this comes naturally to her. Grandmother, if left to her own devices for the last fifty-eight years, would have developed naturally into a hardcore slob. She is a bigger and much worse packrat than I am, she is as careless of method as a ten-year-old, and she has an untidy mind where faith is the final answer to everything and the unexamined life is the only life there is. But she was raised in a large farm family where everyone was expected to do his or her share of the work, the men in the fields and the women in the house, and a falling-off of effort was noticed; and then she lived for forty-three years as the wife of a neat-freak Chinese Libra who grew up with servants and expected everything to be as smooth and clean as a new glass window. She always had someone's expectations to meet, you see; as a classic textbook codependent, that was as big a motivator as she ever needed. And she was young enough to be able to maintain the effort of subjecting her natural self to the desires of others.

Now, though, not only does she lack the physical strength to carry out her accustomed chores, but she doesn't have anybody's expectations except her own to deal with. I personally couldn't care less what the lawn looks like. The only times I notice dishes in the sink are when they smell bad or when there are so many that I can't get the coffee pot under the faucet. If guests drop by unannounced, it's their problem if the living room is untidy or the dining table piled with newspapers... if they want tidy, they should call first, a week in advance.

On top of my indifference to cleanliness (if I can't smell it, it's not dirty) is my strange psychotic rage that has been activated pretty much every time I've found myself doing household chores. I've always felt like I'm being punished when I wash dishes or mop floors. Probably because my stepmother decided one day, quite out of the blue and without any warning, that having four children in the house meant that she had a built-in workforce. Under her new "I'm watching my soaps and cooking dinner, and that's it" regime, extra chores were always assigned as punishments (as was television restriction... and such punishments were handed out liberally, like plastic beads at Mardi Gras). I hate housework, is what I'm trying to say, and then when I am reduced to performing housework I get so angry and resentful that nobody can talk to me afterward... especially the person who made me do the chore. So while Grandmother is exclaiming on how nice and clean everything looks, I just glare at her and slink off to my room to be alone, robbing her of even the vicarious joy of housework.

Between her body's increasing inability and her grandson's resentful indifference, instead of doing anything much, Grandmother makes lists of things she wants to get done. For example, "Clean and oil the kitchen cabinets," has been on the lists for a long time. This will require the purchase of Murphy's wood soap and Old English furniture polish in light oak color (not Olde English, which is a malt liquor but is the same color). We already own these items, but will not be able to find them when we actually start to do the job. It will then require that all of the cupboards be emptied, because of course the insides should be cleaned as well as the outsides (although the insides are laminated and only need dusting, but Grandmother doesn't really grasp the concept of laminated wood... all wood must be oiled and polished and never have anything wet or hot or cold touching it, So Sayeth the Lord, Amen — even when it's veneered plywood). Worn and cracked places will have to be sanded down and refinished. And then the cabinets will have to be reloaded in such a way that all of the items can be placed on the bottom shelf, which is the only one she can reach.

She does all this work in her mind, writing out her little lists, fretting about what people must think of her that she let her house get so seedy, and is so exhausted by all of it that she can't even go over the cabinet doors with a little Lemon Pledge, which is really all they need. The same goes for the rest of the wood furniture in the house. And then there are the bug-choked window-screens, the grease-filled metal filters over the range vent, the dull and damaged hardwood floors, the dark bathroom grout, cobwebs in the furthest reaches of the ceiling, the mirror tiles that are falling off the dining room wall, the chipped places in the driveway, the drawn-up place on the kitchen linoleum, the dust under the refrigerator and behind the washer, the attic, the garage, the basement, the closets, the car, the back deck... it goes on and on and on.

And while I can sit here and make fun of Grandmother's baroque mindworkings and antiquated ideas about cleaning methods and shocking codependency, those mindworkings and ideas and codependency remain exactly the same. No amount of arguing will budge the mind of a faith-based thinker (and believe you me, I have tried... I've spent the last ten years trying to argue Grandmother out of her medieval mindset). So it behooves me, the reason-based thinker and the methodologist and the organized mind of this household, to think of different solutions that do not challenge her ideas. Such as doing the work myself. And as much as it galls me to even consider taking on a weekly regimen of loathesome housecleaning, the rewards of such work are becoming more attractive as the cost in anger and resentment has apparently subsided somewhat.

For example, doing more work around the house will grant me a little more leverage whenever I want to do something that Grandmother might disapprove... it's easier to go out at night when you know you did housework earlier that day, and it's easier to keep Grandmother in check about my privacy and my social needs if I am making her happy in other ways. As I've learned working in a Union, the only truly effective form of leverage is Tit for Tat. I polish your floors, you get your nose out of my drag room.

It will also give me a greater sense of belonging in my own home, to contribute more to the common weal in exchange for my room and board than just chauffering Grandmother around and doing most of the grocery shopping and errand-running. Although I know, on a logical level, that what I do provide is a valuable service and one that would otherwise cost Grandmother a good deal more than the amount of food and electricity I consume, there is the little matter of the debt I feel I owe Grandmother for taking care of me when I couldn't take care of myself. She is the one who made my childhood bearable, she is the one who gave me a home in my upheaved teenage years, she is the one who took me in and made me go back to school when I had run to the end of my tether with my "independence," she is the one who finally gave me that little push of truth that sent me to AA and helped me change my life.

I don't intend to become a slave, mind you. I might go over the cabinets with some Lemon Pledge, but I'll be damned if I'm going to sand the corners or empty the cupboards or do anything else that is patently unnecessary. I'll be happy to put some Orange Oil Cleaner on the exposed parts of the hardwood floors and give them an occasional lick of the dustmop, but I flatly refuse to empty all of the furniture out of the rooms, roll up the rugs, and get down on my hands and knees to go over every inch of the 600 square feet with a wad of steel wool and a bottle of Old English (dark walnut color). And no matter how much she begs and pleads, I will not allow Grandmother to "help" me by explaining how to do each and every chore I already know how to do, using far more words than are necessary or even decorative to explain it. I don't do teamwork.

Before I get started on all of that, though, I am going to clean my room. I don't like too much "tidy" in my personal space, but I do want to see my rug, and I need to get things put away where I can find them easily when I want them. I also need to be able to get in and out of bed and my desk-chair without having to lift my knees above my hips, high-stepping to the alarm-clock or the door over the piles and piles of stuff. And today I have the time (though I have spent a lot of the time I had by writing the above). So off I go!

If I don't write again before Thursday, a happy New Year to you. For myself, 2003 was about experiencing and accepting the person I am and have become; 2004 is going to be about becoming the best person I am capable of becoming. And 36 is one of my "lucky" numbers, so I am looking forward to a banner year.


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