“Writing can be a television substitute,” I tell Bob proudly.
We are in the kitchen and he has just come home to a stack of dirty dishes on the counter.
“That’s great, but I was sort of hoping that maybe cleaning the house might be a substitute for television, too.” He is aiming for humor because he doesn’t want to come across as some sort of pig. He doesn’t expect to walk into a clean house and have me fetch his slippers, the way Samantha might have done for Darren on Bewitched. Of course Samantha had witchcraft to help her get the housework done, at least when she wasn’t trying to live the mortal life.
I don’t have witchcraft, and unfortunately cleaning doesn’t rise to the top of my list of priorities on a day-to-day basis. Part of the problem is the way I was raised to feel about housecleaning.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was not embroidered and displayed in the kitchen I knew as child. When my mother came back from a political convention once, she brought home a poster that she proudly hung up on the wall next to the refrigerator. “Fuck Housework,” it read, and those words became our household slogan. We all detested cleaning, and often found ourselves staring at plates and pans coated with dried-on gravy, week-old pot roast and pieces of moldy chicken sandwiches.
My mother used to shout, “You’re a bunch of parasites, all of you!” I wasn’t sure at first what a parasite was, but I could tell it wasn’t good.
Even after the roaches came, we didn’t change our ways. I remember watching my mother in the kitchen making coffee while I served myself a piece of peach pie. “Cover it up when you’re done,” she would shout as she hurriedly placed a bowl over the butter dish in front of her before the roaches could get to it. These roaches were bold Texas roaches. They only needed only a few seconds to overtake whatever they considered edible. I had a great opportunity to observe their life cycle, the tiny babies that grouped together on the cutting board next the stove, the oversized, adult roaches that took off across the dining room table while we were eating dinner.
The rats were worse. After finding a beady-eyed one in the bathroom early in the morning, I stayed home from school and without consulting my mother called a pest control service I found in the yellow pages. The exterminator who came over was a Viet Nam vet who had recently returned from the war. He was still in combat mode. After surveying the house, he pulled up a chair and spoke quietly, as though he feared an enemy might be listening.
“You’ve got about 300 rats in your attic,” he said. He went on to tell me more than I had ever wanted to know about the species, about dominant male rats that sometimes consume their own kind and sewer rats that can swim for miles before they emerge from people’s toilets. Then he gave me an article, which had a list of “Rat Facts.” Number one was, “A rat the size of a small opossum can compress its body to fit through a hole the size of a quarter.”
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well after he left. Eventually we brought home cats to get rid of the rats, but each cat brought a treasure trove of fleas. I used to put sheets on the furniture before sitting down, in hopes of not getting bitten before I had watched my morning programs. “What’s with all the sheets?” my mother would ask. She never noticed the fleas.
As an adult, I did manage to become a little neater, mostly after I bought a portable television to help me clean. With M*A*S*H in the background, I could keep my mind off the menial nature of the work and block out my mother’s words, stuck in my head. “Where is the satisfaction in this?” she would say when she actually did clean. “This is the work that women have always had to do while men throughout the ages have been able to create art and share profound ideas!”
Now I not only don’t have a portable television, but I also have a toddler and his little friends who aren’t exactly neat and tidy.
“Things get messier now,” I explain to Bob.
He shoves the stack of dirty dishes aside and starts filling the sink with water. “I thought that with Kellie helping and having Clarissa once a week that maybe you could do a little extra,” he says, no longer trying to sound like a sensitive new age guy. I frown.
Clarissa is the housekeeper who comes once a week. She is a large, good natured woman with bleached blonde hair. She is my age but she already has two grandchildren. I give her toys Casey has outgrown. I do this mostly because I feel bad that she has to scrub our toilets.
I try to explain how I feel to Bob. “When I have free time away from Casey, I don’t want to spend it cleaning. I will feel resentful if I do.”
To me not getting resentful is one of the keys to good parenting.
I don’t want to end up like Rebecca. She’s constantly getting annoyed with Camden and complaining about her husband who expects her to have dinner on the table and a clean kitchen every night. That’s why she puts Camden in front of the television, to get everything done. Kendra does the same thing except that she has a television in her kitchen, too, so she can watch CNN while Hannah is in her room watching Blues Clues.
Last year Bob and I went to The Street of Dreams, an exhibit in the Portland metroplex of some of the newest and most ostentatious houses available. Each of the houses had multiple televisions: in the kitchen, the family room and in each of the bedrooms. Most had big screen theatre rooms as well. Is that what Bob wants? I don’t think so.
“It will be better when Mama comes back,” I tell him.
He looks at me incredulously. He remembers seeing the Fuck Housework poster in my mother’s kitchen.
“She keeps me company while I clean,” I remind him.
At least my perspective on cleanliness has become more realistic. I’m seeing more actual houses rather than just the ones I saw on television growing up. There were no colorful blocks strewn about even if a baby was in the show. Even the single, working mom on the Partridge family had a house free of dirty socks and overflowing ashtrays on her coffee table.
I glance over at Casey who happily views the chaos of our house as one, big playground. He is in the middle of the carpet putting pink and purple dinosaurs in the secret passageways of a big volcano. Bob on the other hand doesn’t look happy at all. I want to put my arms around him and make all kinds of promises to him, but I know I won’t keep them. That’s what I used to do until he stopped believing me.
“I’ll work on it,” I tell him. “But I’m not going to use my time away from Casey to clean, and I’m not going to put Casey in front of the television so I can write.”
“I wasn’t asking you to do that,” he says, and stalks away. I wonder if the portable television might have to come back after all.
Fusion Press, UK
“The author’s television turnoff sensitized her to the important place TV plays in friendships and even familial relationships… Debut author Currey-Wilson takes TV seriously, but never herself so much.”
— Kirkus Reviews
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