My mother broke every plate in the house that day. I wasn’t surprised that she was frustrated and angry, but she had always been a yeller, never a thrower or breaker. This was something new.
Her housecleaning techniques were intense, to say the least. To say the most, the woman was certifiably insane about cleaning. Not Joan Crawford insane; but crazy enough that my brothers and I learned early-on that the best course of action was to keep quiet, do what she said, and try not to get noticed.
We weren’t afraid she’d hurt us; my parents never hit us. Almost never, anyway. When I was about 15, I made the mistake of rolling my eyes and saying something snotty while standing too close to my mom and got a face-full of mom-palm for my trouble. But I also learned an important lesson, because never again did I disrespect her like that when I was within arms-reach.
Most of her outbursts happened on weekends, when we were assigned chores to complete before we could watch cartoons or go play outside1. Doing chores was never any fun. If they were, our parents wouldn’t have foisted them off on us the minute we displayed the tiniest hint we might be able to do them.
The day started early when my mom caught the cleaning bug. The first indication was the sound of the vacuum out in the hallway getting closer and closer until she was just outside my bedroom door. Then, using the vacuum cleaner as a make-shift battering ram, she’d come crashing through the door and the fun would begin.
As Legos, marbles and little green army men fell victim to her aggressive vacuuming, she’d take the opportunity to remind us (again) that she was neither our maid, nor had she been put on this Earth to clean up after us. We’d be informed that our rooms were disasters and that there would be no cartoons or going outside until we did something about the mess. We never got off with something as easy as cleaning our room, though. There were also dishes to be washed, windows to be cleaned, furniture to be dusted and laundry to fold. The problem was that we were little kids and sometimes the best job we could do was pretty bad.
We would bring projects home from school – – a jewelry box made with a cigar box, various pieces of pasta and gold spray paint, or a drawing of people being chase by a scary giant with a monstrous deformed head (which actually turned out to be a picture of our family playing together in the park). Obviously, my mom recognized the limitations of a child’s ability, because she never examined an item then tossed it back to us to with the admonition to do it over, and do it right this time.
She was somewhat less charitable in her critiques of our house-cleaning skills. She seemed to recognize that the lack of muscle-strength, along with still-developing manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, were valid reasons for why everything we brought home bore a much stronger resemblance to a steaming pile of crap, than to art. But that line of thinking wasn’t applied to keeping the house clean.
It’s no secret that when I (and probably my brothers) was in a hurry to get outside or have cookies or an Otter Pop, I was more likely to stuff my growing pile of possessions under the bed and take a half-assed swipe at dusting my desk and dresser before announcing that I was finished. Whether I’d taken my time or rushed through the job, I knew enough to head for another part of the house to wait for her inspection to end.
Imagine my surprise then, when I returned and found that every drawer had been removed from my desk and dresser, and it’s contents dumped in the middle of my room. Laying on top of Mount Pile-O-Crap was a note, and while I can’t remember it in it’s entirety, I do remember the line “Get all this junque cleaned up and put away before you go outside.”
Did you catch that? The way she spelled “junk”? Cute, right? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. The entire episode was fairly traumatic for me, and to this day I still get a little shakey at the sight of cute-spelled words, like Kalifornia. *shudder*
While I’d been clearing a nice space on the floor, unaware that all my things would soon be dumped there, my brothers were doing dishes. I’m not 100% percent sure what they did, or didn’t do, but it was something along the lines of not using soap (it makes the dishes slippery in little hands) or washing everything in cold water (because hot water is … hot!)
And just to make sure we all had an outstanding Saturday, they’d gone ahead and put all the dishes away. The first dish my mom pulled out of the cabinet was apparently smeared with a thin coating of grease. Which, of course, means that not only were the dishes they “washed” going to have to be re-washed, but by some process of nature and dinnerware I don’t fully understand, every other dish in the cabinet had been contaminated. Stranger still, was that the contamination had spread to cupboards where the boys hadn’t even put any of the “clean” dishes.
My mom didn’t discuss her reasons or thought process about what happened next, so I can only speculate that it was already too late and any chance at containment had been lost. Nothing more could be done and the dishes would have to be sacrificed.
We at on paper-plates for a long time after that day. I guess you don’t really know what your dishes mean to you until you see them all destroyed in front of you. It was pretty brutal; and it changed me. It changed my whole family.
1 A note to younger readers: Back in the old days “playing outside” was an activity that was not only permitted, but encouraged. It was something we did with other kids, without any adults hovering over us. I know it’s a hard concept for some people to grasp, so let me say it again, “We played outside*, alone and unsupervised, for hours.” Yet somehow we managed to survive even without constant monitoring.
*Outside is the area you walk through on your way to and from the car.