Under the Rim
I should know better than to call them with that Auntie-Em voice, the one that telegraphs something menacing like you’re in trouble or there’s a job for you ahead. If I could just get-a-hold of myself before hollering, “Girls!” and strategize for a moment, pretend I’m offering them a surprise candy, turn my voice to an entirely different timbre. But I’m too often in a hurry, or impatient; my beckoning call gives away it’s I’ve-got-something-for-you-to-do reason.
They come nonetheless, two blond heads bobbing into the kitchen. Short-pants and Buddy-roo are well behaved and though sometimes they’ll dilly-dally and stretch things to the breaking point, they do know when to tow the line.
“Snack-time?” says Short-pants.
“In a moment,” I say, “but first, the toilets.”
I brace myself for their protests, which come at me like a squall. I do not relent. At home in Paris, we are lucky to have a house cleaner who comes weekly and scrubs our toilets, dusts (sort of), vacuums and changes the sheets on the beds. He is unappreciated by the girls; they only understand that his coming means they have to pick up their belongings. This is counter-intuitive to them, they do not yet distinguish between picking up and cleaning. I do understand their sentiment. When I was their age it was beyond me why we had to neaten up before the cleaning woman came. This is a classic passing-of-the-baton moment: you know you’ve become your mother when you hear yourself saying exactly the same things she said to you.
But I respect our cleaner for doing the work I’d prefer not to do, and I do not want to aggravate him by leaving 2-dozen pieces of plastic strewn about Buddy-roo’s floor for him to organize prior to running the vacuum. He comes for only three hours a week; it could take a good chunk of that time just to pick up the books Short-pants has left piled on her floor – I need him to be cleaning, not tidying.
This is my mother channeling herself through me. She had precise ideas about how to treat the people who helped keep our house in order. She was also the queen of cleaning-with-the-cleaning-woman. I have vivid memories of her, in her bathrobe, lifting and turning mattresses in tandem with Georgia, a woman of robust enthusiasm and loyalty, our house-cleaner for many years. Then there’d be that May Saturday when she’d invite Georgia for an extra day of work, and direct all of us to help her wash all the windows of our house. I can still picture my brother, in his long, angry, early-70’s haircut, cursing under his breath as he pulled the storm windows off for the summer season and carried them to the basement while my sister and I, following Georgia’s orders, faced each other with the window between us, squeaking away at each pane with an old strip of white cotton bedsheet.
One summer when I was in high school, my sister’s boyfriend hired me to be his house-cleaner. He lived with two other college-aged guys, the three of them had college-aged-guy living habits. Every week I found myself confronted with their mess of worn clothes, dirty underwear, shoes, books and open magazines, record albums and empty bottles and overflowing ash-trays. It took me a good hour-and-a-half to get their house uncluttered enough to start the real cleaning. Then I knew what my mother meant.
My friend the Fiesta Nazi rents out her studio apartment each year while she winters in a warmer climate, and her consistent complaint upon returning to her Paris home each spring is the condition of her toilet. Her renters are usually students or young adventurers, in their early twenties, and it seems that none of them have learned how to properly clean a bathroom. This made me realize that because we have a weekly cleaner at home, my girls could grow up to be just like her clueless, irresponsible renters. So I set out to make Short-pants and Buddy-roo learn how to scrub the bowl. They may not have to do it at home. But here at the country house, it’s their job.
I accompany one daughter, then the other, and remind them what to do. Lift up the seat first. Make sure the toilet’s been flushed. Pour in the cleanser. Pick up the brush. Buddy-roo slides the brush tentatively along the side of the bowl, barely stirring up any bubbles from the soap we’ve added. I take her hand, like a golf pro correcting the student’s grip, and guide her to use a little more pressure and to move it all around the bowl and then under the rim.
“Use a little elbow grease,” I tell her.
She looks at her elbow, and then up at me, quizzically.
“It means work harder at it,” I say.
She scrubs harder.
“And close your mouth!” My reminder comes just in time, seconds before her vigorous scrubbing splashes a bit of the soapy water up and it lands on her chin.
The country house is a perfect place for this activity; as the primary sweeper, vacuumer and cleaner, I’m happy for the extra hands. But the main thing is I don’t want them to grow up being total princess slackers. I think our generation of parents makes the mistake of doing too much for our kids, or letting too much be done for them. Our indulgence leads to their indolence. I’m counting on the fact that it will come in handy, even in their very privileged lives, to be able to roll up their sleeves, put the brush in the bowl and – with a little bit of elbow grease – clean under the rim.