Andrew Discovers Barbecue Sauce and His Mother Discovers Responsibility

Two things inspired the writing of this particular post:

1. Andrew discovered a McDonald’s container of barbecue sauce and decided it would be perfect to stick his whole hand into. Once he’d discovered that particular texture, he figured it would go great all over his pants and chair and skin.

2. A bunch of women at work were talking about growing herbs–one of them had gotten a lovely rosemary plant for her birthday, and she was checking on it every day to make sure it hadn’t met its end. The ladies compared notes on where to buy tomatoes and which types of chives were “hardier” than others. All I could really contribute to this conversation was, “you know, sage can give people rashes.”

Teaching and parenting are both long games—you do what you can today, but it’s all for the future. You never know when one infinitesimal movement one degree to the left or right will end up somewhere you didn’t expect. Cleaning and yard work, on the other hand, give immediate results. My old principal said that was why he loved working on his yard—he KNEW he’d done a good job. Pull the weeds—they’re gone. Vacuum the rug—it’s clean. Wash the dishes—they’re ready. Mow the lawn—don’t live in the jungle. Throw something out—don’t end up on Hoarders.

I’ve never known anything about gardening, or any kind of yard work, or really anything that has to do with plants. I can’t tell poison ivy from any other type of ivy, and I’ve touched a lawn mower maybe twice in my life. It’s not like I haven’t had opportunities–wild blueberries grew in the woods behind our house when I was little, and we spent long New England afternoons filling tupperware with violet-colored berries. I could pull weeds if my father stood over me, telling me which thing was a weed and which was something we wanted to keep. He grew roses that smelled like candies and had proverbial sticky thorns. My mother is a gardener of good ability; she can keep orchids alive, she grew tomatoes and basil on a windowsill without any help. My grandfather grew all his own vegetables in neat little rows…the only thing I learned from helping him was how to NOT get ticks. I learned that from a negative experience where I fell out of a wheelbarrow. My father-in-law keeps an ever-expanding garden full of berries and flowers and vegetables for salads, but when he talks about it I tend to zone out. This is a skill I do not possess, a part of the human experience that has eluded me. Thus, “keep a plant alive” is one of the items on my List.

When I used to write fiction (for fun, not for any real purpose), I once had a character who lived on a commune and grew herbs. I had to do some research for that one–she would’ve known about all the different plants she took care of: which would grow in what temperature, which animals to watch out for, how to know when this one was ready to pick, etc. I don’t know anything about plants, so this was a difficult piece of character development. But I knew WHY I wanted her to be so good at gardening–not just gardening, herb gardening. Her character was patient. She could kneel on the ground and peer closely; she didn’t mind that days and weeks go by without visible progress. She trusted her own knowledge of growing things. She was observant and careful and calm. We didn’t have a lot in common.

Which really stinks, because it turns out a lot of things require patience. Gardening isn’t the only thing–housecleaning will test your patience. And I don’t have a garden or even a yard, but there’s always something under Drew’s chair that needs to be thrown out. It’s like the waffles breed on the floor. I’m definitely not ready for a plant.

You wouldn’t think I would find housework all that arduous, since I live in a 2-bedroom apartment the size of a fourth-grade classroom. But it’s almost WORSE. When you only have a few square feet to walk on, they get dirty really quickly. Scrubbing the coffee stain out of the carpet was one thing: two sessions of vigorous cleaning and it’s actually looking better (see my previous post if you want a play-by-play of THAT scintillating experience. I would never have done it if it wasn’t for Tinahorse, Andrew’s horse with wheels).

It’s my own fault I find this difficult, actually—Thomas and I have been married for six years, and I never developed a cleaning routine. When we were first married, we cleaned sporadically, if we saw something that looked dirty. Sure, the dishes got done (if we didn’t just laze out and use paper plates), and the laundry happened every couple of days. Every few months, I’d wake up to realize everything was dusty, and I’d rush around, manic, throwing things away that might have been important. I was easily overwhelmed, but I didn’t take the steps to make it easier…like cleaning things up EVERY DAY, little by little.
And this was before Andrew ever came along. Turns out, babies are messy. They poop, and those diapers have to get out of the house. Bottles need to be washed, and innumerable things with spit-up on them have to be…well, usually just trashed, but you get the idea.

Since Andrew became a toddler and Thomas and I continued to work full-time, I’ve frequently been overwhelmed by the amount of cleaning I FORGET to do. I’ll wake up on Saturday morning and say…this is gross. This place is gross. There’s dust on the shelves, the counters are splashed with coffee, and it turns out “baseboards” means something…and if you don’t clean them often enough, you feel like the lady on Hoarders who lived in the armchair in the middle of the sea of trash…next, the diseased cats will all show up.

But this last week, I decided to try a little harder. And by that I mean actually try. Every day after work, I’ve looked around at all the little things that take less than a minute to do, and done them. Things like dusting the shelves (45 seconds), throwing something away (5 seconds), cleaning a toilet (1 minute…maybe I didn’t do it well enough, I don’t know…). Then I focus on laundry while Thomas takes out the trash and unloads the dishwasher. Andrew has been focusing on his art (he watches Bob Ross while coloring), so picking up after him has been a breeze this week. I feel like I can breathe easier. Even with this very simple routine, I’m less overwhelmed.

The mothers and wives of the past would be rolling their eyes right now. Compared to my great-grandmothers, I live in a magical land where machines do my dishes and wash my clothes and entertain my son. I’m sure they got overwhelmed all the time—I’m sure their fingers were tired and they longed for a few minutes to themselves. The other day while I was crawling on the kitchen floor scrubbing off remains of Drew’s last culinary adventure, feeling overwhelmed because it NEVER SEEMS DONE, I saw a picture in my mind of a pioneer woman in a calico dress, scrubbing a wood floor day after day after day without Lexapro or indoor plumbing. I actually try to stay away from descriptions of life back in the day…they make me feel like such a whiny brat. But feeling guilty and lazy doesn’t get things done.

When I was writing a speech for my high school graduation and feeling very profound, I remember writing down a phrase like “Life isn’t made of scenes…life is made of seconds.” I was talking about moral choices, but it works for chores as well. The truth is, it DOESN’T ever end—there will always be another weed to pull, and as long as people are living in your house and they expect to eat, there will be housework. But all the dust on those baseboards doesn’t show up overnight…it accumulates day by day. So you can clean something every day, follow your boring routine, or you can let it accumulate for ages and then spend one long, overwhelming week throwing things away and feeling like a failure and a Hoarder while you scrub things down. But it will be your own choice—my own choice. And I grew up in a pretty clean house…I know what to do. It isn’t from ignorance, it’s from laziness and a desire to do what I want all the time. Yeah, this makes me feel really embarrassed to admit, but somehow I don’t think I’m alone.

I have a friend with two young sons, and she and I used to sit and watch tv while we graded papers and talk about the children we might have one day, and how we would raise them and whether we’d quit working. She loved Leave it to Beaver, and I had to admit it was sort of fun. June was a good mom. Sure, she gets laughed at a lot because she does all her housework in heels and a tiny-waisted dress, but isn’t that just her job? She cooks and cleans and ignores Eddie Haskell, and everybody seems happy. My friend still has that dream—to be the beautiful mom with the two sons, to cook and clean and take care of things and know every day that she’s accomplished something. So she puts a dry-erase board up and writes down a daily task…somehow, once a week, each room gets cleaned. She even wipes the baseboards.

She was so proud of herself to be able to do this again. After a difficult birth with her second child and a weeklong stay in ICU, she says she’s so glad to have the energy to clean again. It’s her job—it’s the job she wanted. She talked about it for years, about what it would be like to be a stay-at-home-mom. When she lost it, even for a short time, it made her grieve. Choices are a gift—she chose the June Cleaver life, and thanks God for it.

And right now I’m choosing to work harder to keep this place clean. Little by little, tiny thing by tiny thing. Someday, maybe I’ll own a big house with three bedrooms—and three beds that need to be made. And maybe we’ll have a pretty yard where we can grow roses that smell like candy and make an idyllic memory for Andrew. And now I’m imagining somebody on their knees in front of a row of plants, pulling weed by weed. You’re tired and your back aches and maybe it doesn’t matter whether you do it today or tomorrow, but you either do it or you don’t.

Welcome to adulthood, again. My father must have spent so many hours on those roses and that enormous green lawn, but I don’t remember them. And I know now how hard my mom worked every day to keep our house clean and make us fresh organic meals (most) every night. My memories of big dinners on Friday night and soft, fresh clothes to wear to school every morning and cars that ran reliably were born of my parents’ constant hard work on little things. I guess now I see what all the nagging was about when I was growing up—‘put the clothes in the laundry’, and ‘go make your bed’, and ‘you have to clean up after yourself’ sounded like an annoying broken record, but underneath it was the lesson of ‘little thing by little thing—that’s how it works. Don’t neglect little things, even if they’re boring and lame’. Anybody can GET a house clean—to KEEP it clean, you have to wipe up the barbecue sauce EVERY time Drew decides to rub it into his chair like Pine Sol. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go check under his chair for food particles.

I have a wonderful life, I really do.

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