40: The Cleaning Gene

40: The Cleaning Gene

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

The Cleaning Gene

There’s something wrong with a mother who washes out a measuring cup with soap and water after she’s only measured water in it.

~Erma Bombeck

In our family, the cleaning gene definitely skipped a generation. The fact that my DNA was missing that particular gene wasn’t as evident when I was a child. My mother taught me very early in life that my room was my responsibility. I had to make my bed every morning and put away my clothes every night.

When my mother, in her guise as drill sergeant, checked my room on a daily basis, I always passed inspection. Some days, that meant racing two steps ahead of her to put away a couple of things at the last minute, but I still managed.

Then I grew up and moved out. My first apartment was a studio. With so little room, I had to keep it neat and clean. That and the fact that I never knew when my mother might drop in unannounced. Fear, as they say, can be a great motivator.

So, I continued to make my bed and put away my clothes every day. If I left an occasional dish overnight in the sink, hoping the dish fairy would wash it, I was soon disabused of that notion. It was always there the next morning, still as dirty as before. Guess my mom was right. The dishes, like the rest of the apartment, were indeed my responsibility—a good lesson to learn.

Vacuuming and dusting, on the other hand, were a lower priority for me. As I pointed out when my mother wrote her name on the dust on my coffee table, “They’re putting up a building right next door. Of course it’s going to be dusty.”

The drill sergeant was not amused. She gave me “the look” and stood guard as I dusted the table and everything else in the apartment.

When I moved to another city, my inner slob moved in with me. While my mother worried about me living on my own almost 400 miles away, I reveled in the freedom. One dirty dish morphed into a sink filled with dishes. My bed retained a just slept-in look for weeks on end. My vacuum cleaner, a gift from my mother, stood forlornly in the closet. I’d pat it every so often and promise I’d use it—eventually.

Every time my parents visited, I would go on a whirlwind cleaning marathon. By the time they walked into the apartment, it was neat and clean. I’d even make the bed, mostly because my parents would be sleeping in it while I got the couch. As my mother did her inspection tour, a hint of a smile on her face, I’d trail behind. “Not bad,” she’d say. “But I wonder what it would have looked like if we’d come in a day earlier than planned.”

I’d grin.

Over the next thirty years, I moved four times. When my father got sick, my parents stopped visiting and my inner slob took over my house. She smiled at me when I rooted in the sink for a somewhat clean glass. She cheered when I mounded the blanket on my bed for one of my cats to sleep on. She played hopscotch down my hallway, using a rather large fur ball as her stone. My mother would have been appalled, but my inner slob and I were quite content.

After my father died, my mother started visiting again. I would send my inner slob out for the day as I raced around doing dishes, chasing down fur balls, and throwing out piles of newspapers that were threatening to take over my living room. While the house still had a lived-in look, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about a visit from the health inspector.

My mother disagreed. She’d walk in, take one look around the house and say, “Why don’t you clean up? I’ll even pay for a cleaning woman.”

I’d stifle a groan and imagine a huge pile of newspapers tumbling over her. Just for an instant. “Thanks for the offer, but I’d have to spend days clearing all my books and papers before she could even start to clean. And I’d never be able to find anything.” Then to make my mother happy, I’d grab files, books, half-written articles and lesson plans from their perch on my coffee table and dump them in my already overcrowded office.

For the rest of the visit, my mother would walk around the house, mentally consigning me to the guardhouse for failing inspection. For my part, I’d wash the dishes, throw out the newspapers every day, and try to keep ahead of the cat hair that decorated the furniture. But I’d refuse to make my bed. “Can’t,” I’d say, “it would disturb the cats.”

All that changed on her last visit. When she walked into house there were dishes in the sink, newspapers in the living room, and enough cat hair to knit another cat tucked into every corner of the house. Apart from the guestroom, which I never use, every other room had a decidedly messy look.

“Didn’t I teach you anything about cleaning when you were growing up?” she asked. She glanced at the sink. “Maybe just do a couple of dishes?”

“Nope,” I said. “They’re quite happy where they are.” I gave her my best imitation of a drill sergeant. “And I expect them to be there tomorrow morning when I wake up. Don’t even think about doing them yourself.”

Before she could object, I continued. “You taught me a lot about cleaning when I was growing up. More importantly, you also taught me to make my own decisions. For that I thank you and for so many other things you taught me and did for me. It’s not your fault I’ve decided I’d rather read a good book than do the dishes, or play with the cats instead of making the bed, or…”

“… I get it,” she said.

And she did. When I woke up the next morning, the dishes were still there. She had even added her own breakfast bowl and plate to the pile. I grinned to think that I might actually be having a bad influence on my own mother, that she might allow her own inner slob to peek out. She can thank me for it later.

~Harriet Cooper

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners