Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.
My dear mother has always had a preternaturally sensitive sense of smell, though now tempered somewhat by age. (She also has a keen sense of justice, but that’s another story.) I shall never forget her entering my kitchen one day, tilting her head slightly, nostrils twitching almost imperceptibly. She made a beeline for my fridge and, pulling the door open, drew forth an innocuous-looking cardboard carton and raised it to her nose. “Your milk’s gone off,” she announced.
Milk goes off easily in the tropics, but this was in temperate New England. Wherever in the world we have lived, Mum has always kept up her home, our home, to her exacting standards, clearing, cleaning, scouring fiercely. She has banished bric-a-brac and done battle with dirt as if life depended on it. Cleanliness has indeed been next to godliness for her, despite her being a lifelong agnostic.
When my husband and I moved into our current house, Mum was still working fulltime in Boston some 90 miles away, but announced that she planned to come out to visit on the very first weekend thereafter. Her intention, she said, was to scrub, sand, and repaint the baseboards and the risers of the staircase all the way from the front hall to the second-floor landing. The previous owners had laid new carpeting up the stairs, but had neglected to refinish them first, so it would be tricky to do the work after the fact. A painstaking job, and Mum was itching to take it on. But I stopped her, indignant. How dare she make plans for my house! I would determine what needed to be done and when, and that painting job, merely decorative in my book, was nowhere near the top of my To Do list.
The thing is, every single time I walk up my front stairs, I notice the grime on the baseboards and the chipped paint on the risers. I still haven’t got round to doing that job. If Mum had had her way it would have been done, and done well, that very first weekend, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
I have absorbed some of my mother’s sensitivity, but not so much of her drive and determination, often tending to drift and dream rather than simply getting on with it. As a young householder, I must have noticed the dust gathering along the tops of the baseboards, but until my mother was coming to visit I would be quite content to let it lie there undisturbed. Then I would fly into a whirlwind of activity, my eye falling on all the little details I routinely ignored with ease, but which she would spot the instant she stepped into the house, just as she detected that whiff of sourness exuded by the milk in my fridge.
Mum’s habits of cleanliness have lasted a lifetime and, to this day, she instinctively picks up a kitchen cloth or paper towel and wipes down the counters, sinks, and stovetop. Wherever she sees piles of papers, scattered crumbs or a jumble of odds and ends, she attempts to restore order, folding, sweeping, stacking them with care. I see these things too, the inevitable flotsam and jetsam of life, although I have become adept at sweeping them out of my mind’s eye. There they pile up, out of sight, but alas, since I am my mother’s daughter, not entirely out of mind. They continue to trouble me until eventually the disturbance is too great to ignore.
I think of Pete Seeger singing We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: Every rung goes higher, higher. I am now nearly the same age that Mum was when she set her mind to repainting my stairway. It’s time, high time.