I am down on my hands and knees in my pajamas, scrubbing my daughter Emma’s bathroom floor. The one-inch hexagonal tiles were clearly not installed with college kids in mind, to say nothing of the Deco light fixtures and grooved wainscoting. Every nook and cranny is caked with grime.
Emma is asleep upstairs in the bed abandoned by the previous tenant. She’s exhausted from yesterday’s 12-hour drive and the thought of setting up her first home outside the dorms. But I’ve been up since daybreak.
It’s been years since I’ve cleaned my own bathroom. I replenish the empty bottles of Soft Scrub and Windex that Maria leaves on the counter. That’s the extent of my exertion. How do I instruct my daughter in the lost domestic arts?
“Make enough money so you can hire a housecleaner” is my usual advice. But Emma at 20 is years away from a good paycheck. What was I thinking when I let Maria scrub the toilet?
Emma may have grown up with Maria, but I grew up without hired help, under the tutelage of a mother who swore by Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep. When I was just a few years older than Emma, I shared an apartment with my friend Jane, whose mother’s domestic Bible was more Lutheran than Peg Bracken. Their credo was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Jane once surveyed the bathroom I had just scoured and asked in a despairing tone, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you about cleanser?”
My mother did teach me about cleanser, but she imparted a different lesson. She associated housework with the humiliation her own mother endured scrubbing floors for a sadistic boss during the Depression. My grandmother humbled herself for a pittance so her daughter would not starve. Maria, albeit with a kinder employer and higher wages, does the same. I am lucky to escape their desperate need. But here I am, another mother engaged in the sacrament of love through sacrifice, down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor for my daughter.
By now my back is aching, so I pause to stretch. Chrome faucets, mirror, and light fixtures gleam. Stripped of encrusted layers of filth, the wainscoting and baseboards are blindingly white. I survey my efforts with pride, grateful that years of paid help have not stripped away my ability to clean, limited though it may be. For the grueling labor that is basic to love cannot be hired out.
Emma is awake at last. She comes downstairs, yawning and stretching as she stumbles into the bathroom. Her delight is a balm for my sore knees and stiff back.
After breakfast, we search out provisions in Emma’s new neighborhood, emerging from the hardware store with a Swiffer Sweeper Starter Kit and several other weapons in the war against grime.
Back at the house, Emma and I tackle the kitchen together. We work side by side, scrubbing the Formica counters, polishing the cabinet fronts. I remember a moment years ago, when baby Emma kept me company in the kitchen, her luscious neck folds spilling out of the collar of her cotton jammies. As I sat on the floor polishing with the cleaning rag, I glanced to my side. There she was right next to me, vigorously wiping circles on the cabinets with her blankie. Baby Emma grinned with delight as we swooped, cackling, into one another’s arms.
Now Emma spritzes Windex on congealed spills atop a glass table in the living room. We ooh and ahh over the house’s multiple charms—the elegant bathroom, soft pine flooring, built-in window seats. Emma and I scheme about getting rid of all her housemates’ junk. I think, If only we could get rid of them, I could move in here with you, and we could really fix it up nicely! But I keep this sentiment to myself.
The next morning I must head for home. Emma is content to stay behind, running her Swiffer under the sofas and across the honey-colored floors.
I go into the gleaming bathroom one last time. Pausing in my morning ablutions to admire my handiwork, I see that I have missed some spots. The window is streaked, and stray cobwebs dangle from the upper molding like Spanish moss. But overall, the bathroom cleans up nicely. It has good bones.
I’ve missed a few spots with my daughter as well: how to budget, how to scrub a toilet, the uses of cleanser. But Emma, too, cleans up nicely. She has good bones.
My aching bones remind me again of my gratitude for Maria. I’d still advise Emma to earn enough money to hire a housecleaner. But I would impart some additional wisdom as well: Learn how to clean, so that someday, if you are lucky enough to be moving your daughter into her first house, you can know the sheer joy of scrubbing her bathroom floor on hands and knees while she sleeps.
What was it like moving into your first home away from home? If you have children, what’s it been like helping them set up in their newly fledged adult lives?