Jul 19 2011

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.

Feb 9 2009


Photo by Pablo Puga

Photo by Pablo Puga

My mother used to say that if we learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular. This became embedded in our family folklore; it was sport to tease my mother about it. When she’d complain about the hours I’d spend talking on the phone, I’d remind her that if she hadn’t suggested I take up water-skiing I wouldn’t have so many callers. If there were too many invitations in one weekend, which meant she was driving me here and there and back again, it was, “Geez mom, you shouldn’t have taught me to water-ski.”

I wasn’t a bad water-skier. I could throw the ski over the gunwale, jump in after it, slip my feet in the binders, rush the rope through my grip until it was taut, deliver the thumb’s-up signal, and stand up on the first go. (Okay the first few times I tried, it wasn’t that easy. My friend Penne drove the boat in circles for an hour before I got it right. But after a bit of practice I was pretty confident.)

I don’t believe knowing how to water-ski made me popular, but it is true that when one of my friends suggested it, I didn’t hesitate to join in. And being able to join in is a huge part of how you gain confidence as a child, certainly as an adolescent. I think that’s what my mom was getting at: you could do fun things with fun people – if only you knew how. Growing up on a lake, ice-skating and water-skiing could be useful.

But for some reason I never learned to ice-skate. I went out on the ice two or three times, in a borrowed pair of skates, holding the hand of some boyfriend who was not nearly as patient as my friend Penne was at the helm of her boat. (No doubt he was more interested in other things than teaching me how to skate.) Because of this, as an adult, I avoided opportunities to go ice-skating. Every year the city constructs a huge rink in front of the Hotel de Ville, but I invented plenty of good excuses not to use it.
Then De-facto found an old pair of ice-skates (Hans Brinker-styled) in the basement of our building. They happen to be exactly my size. He sharpened the blades and presented them to me. Whenever he could persuade me to go skating with him, he was just as patient as Penne was, ushering me around the rink while I struggled to keep my balance. But my progress was, well, slow.

Saturday he was energetically rousing the girls to get to the rink; we’d signed them up for a lesson, and for good measure I agreed to take it with them. “But I already know how to skate,” Buddy-roo said. (She lies, by the way.) “You’re never too good at something to learn more about it,” I’d humored her. “You have to practice to get really good. It’s called mastery.”

The night before, I admittedly had one glass of wine too many (okay, maybe two). When De-facto saw my head hidden under the pillow, he offered to let me off the hook. I burrowed my head further under the covers and considered the pleasure of a longer lay-in, especially given that he would remove the noisy creatures from the house. Sleep was reestablishing itself fast, until I heard the voice. My father, dead more than 20 years, still manages to converse with me, usually at the most inopportune moments (like this one).

He called me by my full name. This got my attention when I was 15, and still does. I turned to face the other way under the comforter, hoping a mere repositioning of my sleepy head would remove his voice from my inner consciousness. No luck. He reminded me that all week we’ve been promoting this skating lesson to the girls, including my promise to take the lesson with them. My father reminded me that if I simply blew off the lesson because I had a head-ache and cotton-mouth (okay, he didn’t actually use that term), I wasn’t really setting a good example to inspire these young, observant minds looking to me for cues on how to live their lives. What kind of message would that send? His final words (the ones that cinched it): “What about mastery?”

My father was usually right when he was alive, and this is a talent he’s retained in his grave. Since I couldn’t argue with him, I shoved one leg out of bed and then the other and pattered painfully into the kitchen. “You’re coming after all?” De-facto said. “Coffee,” I groaned.

A half-hour later, on the ice, I’d mastered my mild hangover and was slowly mastering my balance on skates. I was the tallest (by a lot) of ten students standing in a line in front of the teacher. The girls were with me, one on each side, bawling. It was too cold. They were too tired. They didn’t like the lesson. They wanted to go home. “I understand,” I kept saying, I did feel their pain, “but I need you to stay and learn to skate with me.”

At one point I leaned over the railing of the rink, bending backwards to stretch out my back. I looked left and saw De-facto, leaning over the rail, further down. Our eyes met and the mutual understanding was immediate: “Aren’t our children pathetic?”

When it became evident that the girls were not extracting anything from the lesson, and in fact their more-or-less continuous wailing was inhibiting the other students, De-facto skated over and removed them to the children’s section where they could balance with colorful chairs or big plastic penguins. I continued with the lesson all by myself, walking backwards girls_on_ice, carving Vs in the ice and trying to balance on one leg and then the other. Not only was I the tallest (and oldest) student, I was the most dedicated.

When they left the rink, De-facto and the girls came by and leaned against the railing for a moment to watch me. “Way to go, mama!” a little voice shouted. “Shut-up.” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

I’m still a bit unsteady on the ice. But I’ve made huge progress; even that one lesson helped a lot. Now I actually look forward to going ice-skating.

Today, De-facto tugged me out the door at quarter-to-twelve. He was in a rush because he likes to get on the ice before it gets crowded. The security guards wouldn’t let us in – we were too early – so we crouched outside the entrance, replacing our boots with our skates. When they unlocked the doors, we stomped straight through the changing room and right out onto the ice. The rink was absolutely ours; we were the only two people skating. The clock in the Hotel de Ville tower struck twelve, sounding off its hollow mid-day echo. Hand-in-hand we carved a wide arc along the perimeter of the rink.

Popular? I don’t think so. Content. That was it, content. I guess I have Mom and Dad – and De-facto – to thank for that perfect little moment.