Cleaning house


Ruth Moose

All our life
so much laundry;
each day’s doing or not
comes clean,
flows off and away
to blend with other sins
of this world. Each day
begins in new skin,
blessed by the elements
charged to take us
out again to do or undo
what’s been assigned.
From socks to shirts
the selves we shed
lift off the line
as if they own
a life apart
from the one we offer.
There is joy in clean laundry.
All is forgiven in water, sun
and air. We offer our day’s deeds
to the blue-eyed sky, with soap and prayer,
our arms up, then lowered in supplication.

(Found here.)


I will stop writing about Germany soon. In the meantime, I’m still wringing resolve from the experience, trying to juice some wisdom out of those long and quiet days, those evenings when I couldn’t so much as wash the supper dishes in the narrow kitchen for fear of waking the baby. I have no such excuses anymore, and I have chapped hands and clean counters to show for it.

In our second flat in Heidelberg we had a cleaning lady. I had never before in my life hired anyone to clean anything for me, and it felt weird and uncomfortable, but also just about magical. Her name was Susi. She came with the place, more or less; she was employed by the tenants from whom we were subletting, and they asked us to keep her on as a favour, to stay on good terms with the landlady, of whom she was a friend. For the first few weeks we lived there she was away on her annual vacation to Thailand. The tenants, who were in town briefly for a conference, and with whom we went out for coffee and cake, told us that we would never find anyone who would clean better than Susi. I was dubious, and also a little irritated, because the retired professor who had sublet the flat before us had not employed her, hadn’t even vacuumed in six months, and it showed everywhere, especially on the baby’s knees and elbows as she army-crawled across the filthy floors.

Susi did not disappoint. At five p.m. every other Monday she arrived, smelling faintly of tobacco, and cleaned the hell out of the flat while I fed the baby supper and waited for the living-room floor to dry. Then we switched rooms and waited for her to finish up so we could run the baby’s bath, enjoy the sparkling kitchen, the pristine bathroom. It felt like cheating. I was home all day every day and only bothered with the worst messes – handfuls of discarded spaghetti, diaper incidents. Everything else just went away in a frenzy of environmentally unfriendly cleaning products and Susi’s elbow grease.

There is a kind of reverence that I have for this house, now that I’m back in it with no plans to leave for the foreseeable future. I want to treat it well in the hope that it will return the favour. I have put in a lot of time cleaning, and organizing, and trying to make the space work for me, these last six weeks. I think I’m starting to see how housekeeping, housewifery, home economics could be considered an occupation, if not a career. When my mother-in-law visited in August, we drank wine together in the evenings and she told me about her maternal grandmother, who was never idle. She was up before dawn, she recalled. She had no washing machine, no electric oven, no refrigerator. She pressed all her clothing, sheets, and towels with heavy flatirons like tiny benevolent anvils that required heating on the woodstove. I am fortunate to have more leisure time than her, and I’ve been thinking about how to spend it. I felt so detached from the city of Heidelberg that I fantasized about what I might do, out of the house, when I returned home, yet here I am, scrubbing the stovetop, laundering clothes.

Until next week, at least. I’m participating in a food swap next weekend, to which I’m looking forward immensely. It’s a mix of people trading homemade goods – canning, baked things, et cetera – and I hope to leave carrying all sorts of good stuff. I missed pickling this year. Next week I’m planning to attend a meeting held by a local editors’ association, about the local editing market. I applied for exactly one library job, for which I was overqualified, when we got back, and heard nothing from the HR department thereafter, so I’m trying to think about my other marketable skills. But then, there’s always housecleaning.


4 responses to “Cleaning house

  1. I love this poem! And although it feels a little funny to be a stranger looking in on your life, it’s nice to hear from you again.

    I admit, I’ve had a housekeeper for the last four years and I don’t know how I’d manage without her now. My husband talked me into getting her when I had my son and I haven’t cleaned a bathroom in four years. I allow myself this luxury, in part, because in college I was a cleaning lady and remember well the strange but satisfying work of cleaning other people’s homes. I do, however, sometimes do our laundry and ironing myself just because I enjoy it. I think I even miss the laundry a little, folding it smooth and building little piles of bright colors across the sofa.

    • What is the internet for, if not glimpses of strangers’ lives? 🙂

      It’s funny, because any time I’ve cleaned for others as a favour, I do a far better job than when I clean my own house. It is strangely satisfying – probably because I don’t have to witness the messmaking that follows.

  2. So much to say. I love the poem about laundry because it seems like laundry is such a recurring theme of my life for various reasons. And, metaphors aside, I really do think it is the cornerstone of housekeeping (dirt gets transfered to the cleaning rags, then must be flushed from the cleaning rags and out of the house once and for all so the cycle can start over again).

    You hit upon a subject here and I have thought about more than I would like to admit. My family also contains the mythology of the mother (my mother’s maternal grandmother) who never sat down, cooked three meals a day for six children, washed, ironed, and starched all the clothes and sheets weekly, and was seen only to sit down in a rocking chair on the front porch once a day, right before dinner, at which time she put on a clean apron. Whenever I think about her, I feel devastated over the fact that all I want to do is load the dishwasher as quickly as possible and get Chinese take-out so that I can do all the things I am interested in that are not housework.

    • I’m pretty sure there’s a trickle-down effect through the generations spoiled by modern conveniences. My grandmother ironed her towels (!); my mother, only her clothes; I iron nothing (though my sister irons with a passion).

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