I’m scared of the cleaning lady. Always have been. I start grouching when I see my wife’s got Megan scheduled to come. How can I get our bedroom in order by then? Where do I stash all the books on my bedside table? How can I clear the top of my dresser? It’s been nice stacking the un-ironed clothes I’ve been wearing since March on that chair. Most importantly, where will I hide as this Tasmanian Devil of a Mrs. Clean storms through our house?
Megan is a thorough cleaner. But she’s also got a bad habit of moving every item that comes in her path. It takes me days to get things back to where I recognize the home I inhabit.
Are these picayune white-people worries or what?
We called the cleaning ladies who looked after our house several days a week when I was growing up, babysitting me and my siblings at the same time, our maids. We spoke about how they were like family. As kids, we’d play tricks on Thelma, Mildred, Rosie and the others who my parents would pick up and drop off from other parts of town. We’d work to make them make shooshing noises, or put their hands to their cheeks in astonishment.
When we had help during the years we lived in England, these family helpers were younger, more beautiful. They were au pairs and from Germany, Holland or Norway. We would inevitably travel to meet their families. They’d have boyfriends visit every once in a while, arousing me and my siblings’ feelings of jealousy.
These are worse than just white-people memories. This is the root of the systemic racism we’re fighting now. Especially for those of us who grew up in the South, or places where Southern ways kept hold for decades following civil rights.
I know we’re special to be able to afford help with our cleaning. And that that cleaning is good for our household. I like being able to afford Megan once or twice a month, and to be able to afford to tell her which rooms to leave alone when I’m not ready for them to submit to her relentless cleaning and reordering of things.
I’m uncomfortable with the economic relationships implied in such work, and their history. And what it says about my standing in our neighborhood.
This is how we learn. This is how we start to really clean house.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.