Jul 31 2011

Shelving Matters

“But why did we need to redo our bathroom?” said Buddy-roo. She waved her hand like a game-show host’s assistant, pointing out all the clutter in our living room. Boxes of tiles, equipment yet to be installed – sinks, toilets, mirrors, a new towel heater – all sprawled across the floor. Our hallway is covered with dust from two different kinds of saws, each one set up on wide, sturdy sawhorses in the middle of our entry foyer. Pieces of particleboard, soon to be cupboards, are stacked against the wall making it nearly impassable.

I ran through the litany of complaints about our old bathrooms: the aging toilets, lack of counter space, lack of shelf space and inefficient storage – let alone the aesthetic problem of a sickening color of green tile not quite olive but not quite forest, the kind of green that neither soothes nor pleases the eye. Constructed in the early 1970s – and I doubt there was any renovation bestowed upon them before I started living here in the mid-90s – those bathrooms are owed a re-look.

There isn’t a renovation project that’s easy to live through, but perhaps kitchens and bathrooms – the two most plumbing intensive rooms in a home – are the most difficult to endure, which is why we scheduled the work to be done in July while we were out of town. But an appointment in Paris required our presence and we also felt the need for a few consecutive days of full-time internet connection to keep up with our on-line lives, so we trekked back to the city for a mid-summer’s pause in our what is usually a nearly-full-summer vacation.

Not that it hurt to be home to peek at the work in progress and surely there were a few decisions better made after seeing things first hand. There is the clear promise of a 4-star hotel bathroom in the making, but still much work ahead before anyone can luxuriate in that bathtub.

Maybe one of you readers could kindly enlighten me as to why De-facto would distract our contractor by asking for his attention on another project, at a little studio we rent out, in the middle of our double bathroom renovation? That “little” job turned out to be much more complicated than the few days originally forecast. Since our contractor is meticulous – and for this I hired him – that small-job-gone-awry put him at least a week behind on our bathrooms. You might imagine that his keen attention to detail might anyway contribute to what was already his propensity to run behind schedule. De-facto’s quick little job-on-the-side didn’t help.

Luckily our next-door neighbors were gone last week, so we borrowed their bathroom. But after 6 days of sawing and pounding and tile-dust, and knowing that there’s at least another week (or more) of it ahead, we’d had enough of cohabiting with the renovation. Our summer-in-the-city days were numbered. It’d be much easier to get out of town, though we picked one of the most heavily trafficked weekends in France to be on the road again.

Buddy-roo motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom. The contractor had been building customized shelves, fitting them around an old beam that cuts diagonally from the ceiling to the floor along one of the walls.

“Look at all the shelves,” she said.

“Yes,” I marveled with her. The shelves glistened like jewels, each cubbyhole waiting to harbor my creams and powders.

“Do I get a shelf of my own?”

I had considered, in the design, that the girls might grow into teenagers in this bathroom, requiring a designated place to store their own toiletries. I nodded my head.

“Which one?” she asked, with the same enthusiasm she exhibits on Christmas morning.

“We have to see, when it’s all done, what makes sense.”

“What about Papa?” she asked, “Does he get a shelf?”

I eyed the cardboard, plastic pieces and old plaster piled in the bathtub, the electrical wires jutting out of the wall, the open pipes waiting for fixtures to be attached.

“Over there,” I pointed to the small triangular shelf in the corner, at the furthest point from where the sink will be, just behind the door.

“That little one?” she said.

I nodded. I waved my hand around the room, like Vanna White, showcasing all the work that was taking longer than expected.

“Yes,” she said, conspiratorially, “That’ll be just right.”


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.