Cleaning Houses

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When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked part-time cleaning houses. I had just gotten my teaching certification, but there were no jobs for teachers in or around Santa Barbara. So in the mornings, I supported myself working as an aide in a fourth grade classroom. In the afternoons, I cleaned houses.

I like cleaning. It’s active and productive. When you’re done, you can see the difference. In those days, I worked fast and often finished early. I was paid under the table, too. All in all, it was satisfactory employment.

My first job was for a thirty-something woman with a couple of kids and a husband. They lived in one of those rambling Spanish style houses above Santa Barbara. Curry—that was her name—stuck around for the first couple of times I cleaned for her, and then she decided I was trustworthy and left me alone. I would put a record on her great stereo system, and blast the music while I cleaned. She had a lousy old vacuum, so I brought my own. I liked working there. It was an interesting house and Curry was a crunchy granola Californian like me.

Another regular job took me into a large house in a new development. It was way up on a bare hillside overlooking the town. My employer was an older WASP woman, maybe in her mid-sixties. She was slim with poofy gray hair, and she dressed in cashmere sweater sets. She had one of those white miniature poodles with eyes that drip dark tracks on its face. I met her husband only once, when he forgot something at home. He appeared to be about ten years younger than she, a tall, paunchy, florid man who barely acknowledged my presence.

One of my tasks was to empty and wipe out the refrigerator. I’d been a vegetarian for a while by then. Some of the food in that fridge was nauseating. I particularly remember a container of some ham aspic that wobbled and looked like vomit in Jello.

Right below the ceiling in the living room was a shelf displaying Louis XIV china figurines. They were each about twelve inches high. Ceramic lace edged their clothing. When Mrs. WASP asked me to dust, I would climb up on a stepladder with the feather duster and flap away at the china figures, and—oops!–occasionally knock off fragments of lace. Oh, well, I figured, the Mrs. will never see those broken bits from below.

Unlike Curry, Mrs. WASP supervised my work. When we changed the sheets in the bedroom, she made sure that I had the top sheet with the right side facing down, so that it folded over right side up. “Who cares?” I scoffed to my best friend.

The job with Mrs. WASP was short–lived. I didn’t like her dog or her refrigerator, and I think she didn’t mind seeing the last of me.

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The teacher I worked for hired me to clean his house. I had plenty of opportunity to observe him in his fourth grade classroom, where he presented himself as a Cool Dude. The tasks he assigned to me were mostly organizational: sorting kids’ work, checking worksheets, and handing out papers. He didn’t share the teaching with me. Mr. Cool was still in his classroom when I cleaned his house in the afternoon.

He lived in a small cottage in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara’s poorer southern sister. The color scheme inside the cottage was brown and yellow, in abundance. I didn’t discover anything revealing or unsavory about Mr. Cool when I cleaned his house. Somehow, though, I learned that he was dating the mother of one of his students. The boy’s affect in class demonstrated how confused and uncomfortable he felt. He was quiet and withdrawn, almost sullen. I felt badly for him, having his mom’s boyfriend as his teacher.

My favorite employer was a motherly woman whose children were grown and no longer living at home. Mrs. M. and I worked together, organizing her spices and her messy pantry. One day she asked me to clean the grill in the enclosed patio. I went at it with vigor and steel wool, scrubbing that blackened grill clean. When Mrs. M. saw the results, she turned pale. I had taken the Teflon coating right off.

A friend and fellow cleaner passed her job on to me. I never saw the man whose house I cleaned. I’d let myself in—I don’t remember if I had a key or one was hidden—and I’d clean the house, pick up my check and leave. I noticed a lot of sex related items in the bedroom, including a large, schmaltzy reproduction of a semi-nude woman, condoms and lubricants. These made for snickering conversations with my girlfriends.   Beware of what you leave around when the cleaning lady comes!

The cleaning jobs slid away when I found work at the Migrant Children’s Center. Yet my days as a cleaner were instructive. I’m glad I did that work and stood in those shoes.   All these years later, I still prefer cleaning to cooking. The results last longer.

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Fly on the Wall

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What would a fly on our apartment wall make of a day watching my husband and me? How would we—the caregiver and the man with dementia– look to an observer’s eyes?

The moment I awaken and sit up, I hear my husband say, “Good morning, dear.” I mutter “Mornin’” or give a silent wave in return. I don’t transition well from sleep to wakefulness, Fly. I’m not a cheery, chirpy robin, first thing. To me, it feels like my husband needs to know that I know he’s there, from the second I open my eyes.

But how does this look to you, Fly? Do I appear grumpy and unkind?

During the day, there are times I avoid meeting his eyes. I make him disappear by withdrawing my visual attention. My excuse for this behavior is that I crave solitude, so I don’t acknowledge his presence with my eyes. Multiple times a day, though, I do look up and he’s watching me. I have an audience all of my waking hours, Fly. Even when we’re not in the same room, he’s listening. If I drop a book or make a loud noise, he comes trundling up the stairs. “Are you all right? I heard a noise.”

Fly, I know he does it because he’s so anxious. He depends on me for everything. Am I being mean in the way I respond, Fly? It’s just too much sometimes, him clinging and watching. I get impatient, Fly. You’ve heard my tone of voice. I’ve heard it, too, and I feel guilty. But I’m not a saint, Fly.

In my defense, Fly, you do realize that we’ve been shut up in this apartment with only each other for over two months now. Am I making excuses?

He’s an old man, Fly. When we take our daily walk, he shuffles along behind me on his arthritic knees. I do turn back to catch up with him, Fly. And if the tension in my muscles is too much, I jog ahead for a while and then jog back to him.

I’m embarrassed to have you observe our mealtimes, Fly. We both read while we eat. There’s not much talk, because he doesn’t have much to say. He tries, though. Sometimes he’ll read aloud part of an article from The Week magazine. And read it to me again a minute or two later.

Oh, Fly, you’ve heard me tell him, “You already read that.” I know I should nod and smile and listen and offer an appropriate comment. But, Fly, it’s like living with emptiness. And it’s so sad, Fly.

Do you see the sadness of it, sitting there on the wall? Do you hear how he asks me, “Is it okay if I eat this?” “Where does this go?” “Is something cooking?” “What’s on the agenda today?” “Did I eat breakfast already?” His whole life resides in me, Fly. The truth is sometimes I hate it.

I know you’ve seen me weeping, Fly. I admit to wallowing in self-pity. It’s been hard to let the dreams go, Fly. It’s been hard.

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The Issue of Hair

fullsizeoutput_362Hair has always been an issue for me.  Well, not always.  Until I hit puberty, around twelve years old, my hair was brown and straight and not particularly worthy of attention.  Then along came adolescence.  My hair went wild.  All over.  The hair on my head grew wiry and frizzy.  The hair on my legs gradually became dark and too thick to ignore. To my horror, I grew a faint mustache.

In middle school and high school, I spent hours dealing with my hair.  Twice a week, I tamed the stuff on my head with plastic rollers the size of soup cans. (Remember, this was the 1960s, when long, straight hippie hair was cool.) It took more than an hour under the hair dryer to achieve the final smoothness.  In between washings, I’d clip it around my head at night to stop the frizzy waves.

When I was in ninth grade, all that effort went for naught because I had swimming for  first period P.E.   It was some kind of cruel test for freshmen.  The required bathing caps weren’t much help.  I went through the rest of the day with frizzy hair and smelling like chlorine.

To deal with the mustache, I used a bleaching cream.  And I shaved and shaved my legs.

So much hair.

So much time spent managing it.

Three years ago, in Spain, I had my hair cut really short.  I was 66.  It’s been the best choice regarding hair that I have made in years.  Wash and wear.  No blow-dry, no rollers or ties or scrunchies or clips.  Whew.

 

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That was the good aspect of aging, getting brave and practical about how much of my remaining time I chose to spend fussing with my hair.

But there’s a not-so-good aspect to aging and hair.  The stuff just keeps on sprouting!  In the weirdest places, too.  Now I have to check my nose and my eyebrows and chin for rogue hairs.  Some are white and stand out defiantly.  And I’ve acquired a light layer of blond fuzz all over my cheeks.  It takes diligent daily effort to keep everything mowed and pruned.

God laughs and shakes an admonishing finger.  “One place or another, you’re gonna have hair.”

Art as a Healing Force

 

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When I was eighteen years old, a senior in high school, my mother was dying of cancer. No one said the words out loud, but we all knew.

Of that time, I most remember sitting at my desk and drawing. With a crow quill pen and a bottle of India ink, I used minute lines to create intricate pictures. None of them remain save one, a portrait of my cat asleep on my bed.

I would scratch away with the tiny pen point for hours, until my blood sugar dropped so low that my hand began to shake. In that universe bound by the edge of the paper, I discovered a grim joy. Certainly I found something I could control; control that did not exist anywhere else in my life at home. There was no conscious realization that I was using creativity to defy death, or that those myriad lines of ink were healing me and holding me together like stitches. But that is what happened.

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During that time, I also kept a journal. Later, I referred to my journals as my “garbage cans,” receptacles where I could throw anything. There were no rules for these writings. I wrote whatever inspired me, whenever I felt the need to write. Poems, the beginnings of sappy romances, and a lot of whining filled the pages. Some of those notebooks still exist, stashed in a plastic bin. Fifty years have passed and I am still unwilling to read them.

To this day, I find solace in creating, be it writing, drawing, or sewing. Each of these activities carries its particular medicine. Writing lets me pour pent-up emotions, persistent thoughts, and fantasies, and then it teaches me where I am. Drawing and painting focus me and put me back together. Sewing grounds me as I use my hands to produce something utilitarian and attractive.

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The stories I wrote during my first two years in a writing group helped me exorcise the collected bitterness and sorrow of a failed marriage. When at last I spread those vignettes across the carpet and arranged them in chronological order, I found I had created a novelette. What a satisfying result from so many pages of tearful memory! The best part was that the sadness and anger were no longer sitting like sewage waste in my gut. Like compost, the smelly mess was transformed into something of positive value.

Art is not an elitist activity. As one of my writing mentors, Pat Schneider, states in her Five Essential Affirmations , “A writer is someone who writes.”* Publication is not a requirement to claim that title.  The same can be said of any medium. Pat Schneider also affirms that “Everyone is born with creative genius.” No matter who you are, or what you have been told about yourself, you can pick up a brush or a pen or a needle and thread and access the joy and the healing power of artistic self-expression.

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*Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and With Others. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, 2003.

The Language of Dementia

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In one of life’s many curious twists, my granddaughter of 15 months is gaining language while my husband with dementia is losing it.

Lately I’ve been noticing the language tricks he uses to compensate for the word loss and continue to participate in conversation.  Three of his all-purpose words are: guys, affair and operation.  “Guy” or “guys” can refer to any object, such as “What should I do with these guys?” meaning the mail.  He often asks, “Where does this guy go?” when putting away a utensil.  (As noted previously, all kitchen drawers and cabinets are labeled, so maybe it’s just laziness?) “Look at that guy!” pointing to a tree in bloom.

“Affair” and “operation” are pretty much interchangeable.  When we’re walking, he may say, “That’s a nice operation,” meaning the layout of the house we’re passing.  “Affair” can also be a catch-all for any activity, from dinner with friends to a game of Scrabble.

He also has favorite phrases that are prompted by events.  At the end of our daily walk, he says, “That was a nice little jaunt.”  Sadly for me, I wait for the comment as we come up the stairs and then grind my teeth when–yes–he says it again.

Here I have to confess my own personal terror: I, too, am losing words.  A couple of weeks ago, I could not find the word “ostracize.”  I knew it was hiding in my mind somewhere.  I knew Pete Seeger used that very word in the story-song Abiyoyo.  “The townspeople _____________ the boy and his father.  That means they made ’em live on the edge of town.”  But I couldn’t think of it.

These blanks come too often for comfort, especially for a writer like me.

I remember my mother asking me to “bring me the thing on the thing.”  Right.  A little trouble retrieving words is part of normal aging.  But when isn’t it normal?

What if I’m getting dementia?  How will we manage, the two of us?

Fiddler on the Roof Redux

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Tevye:  “Do you love me?”

Golde:  “Do I WHAT?”

My husband with dementia–asked me that last night.

“What is this, Fiddler on the Roof?” I replied (continuing the Jewish technique of answering a question with a question).

Tevye: “Do you love me?”

But my husband, not a musical theater buff, sat there waiting.  So I channeled Golde and sang,

Golde: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house.  Given you children, milked the cow.  After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”

He still sat there, with his stupid knitted nightcap on, waiting for an answer.

“Would I be doing this if I didn’t?” I finally said.

But, oh, what a torrent of troubled thoughts and emotions his question brought.

Do I love him?

This man with whom I share a bed, a home, lockdown, days of sameness and dullness–this man who has lost much of his–of our–past, who mainly converses about the present moment–this man is not the man I married.

Where did that lively, alert, busy guy go?  It was the connection of our spiritual path that reeled me in.  For years, we did seva–“selfless service”–together at the ashram.  We went to programs there, signed up for longer retreats.  That connection was our anchor and our hub.

Alas, our seva at the ashram was “concluded” two years ago, when the food service supervisors decided that my husband’s dementia was too much of a liability.  After that, I couldn’t imagine leaving him at home to volunteer by myself. How would I explain it to him?

Love changes.  That’s for sure.  These days, I don’t know what I’m feeling about love or about him.

In the beginning, when we were getting to know each other, I borrowed from John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to explain myself.  Gray says that men are like rubber bands, and women are like waves.  “But I’m a rubber band,” I told him.  “I need to get away, to be alone in order to come back,” I said.   Maybe most introverts are like that.

So much for those needs being met.  I haven’t really been away from him for weeks.  Months.  Years.

So do I love him?  I’m still here.  He needs a caregiver. I’m it.   There is no one else.

Golde: Maybe it’s indigestion.

Tevye: Golde, I’m asking you a question.  Do you love me?

Golde: Do I love him?  For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him.  For twenty-five years, my bed is his.  If that’s not love, what is?

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Pete Seeger: Then, Oh, Then

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When I was about five years old—that would be 1956, when the U.S. was crawling out from the McCarthy era–my parents took me to a children’s concert. I sat close to the stage, looking way, way up at this beanpole of a man. He stretched his neck like a plucked chicken, and picked tinny notes from a long-necked banjo. He told a story about a scary giant with slobbery teeth. To my utter amazement, he sang and danced like a demented cricket all around the stage. I’d never seen a grown-up act so silly. It was wonderful.

It seemed like all the adults in my life knew Pete’s songs. At home, my parents played Weavers’ albums.

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At summer camp, one of the counselors played the banjo just like Pete. The whole camp gathered in one big room. Counselor Tom led our afternoon Sing Time. “Go tell Aunt Rhody,” we sang, and I wondered why the goose died in a “milk pond.”

In the 1960s, the songs of the Civil Rights Movement flowed through my days. I listened to the record album We Shall Overcome over and over.

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Then I was a camp counselor myself, teaching the kids to sing Pete Seeger songs: “Ragapati ragava raja Ram.” And later I was a teacher, and a mother, passing on these songs that were woven into the fabric of my life.

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Wonder of wonders, we moved to the Hudson Valley and joined the Beacon Sloop Club. At the 1983 Clearwater Revival, when my baby girl was just three months old, I sat with her on my lap listening to Pete and the Sloop Singers sing about the Broad Ol’ River while cottonwood fluff drifted overhead.

Had you told me when I was an eighteen-year-old camp counselor that one day I’d be sharing the stage with Pete Seeger, I would not have believed it. Those days as a Sloop Singer were some of the richest, most exciting experiences of my life. To sing in the company of Pete and all the other accomplished musicians (far more able than I) was utter joy.

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So were the seasonal festivals. My kids and I sold tickets at the Clearwater Revival, cooked chili at the Pumpkin Festival (where Toshi scolded me for composting celery ends), and got happily soaked at the Weed Wallow.

A song by Greg Brown that I brought from Iowa particularly took Pete’s interest. “Early Iowa” stuck to me and became “my” song when Sloop Singers gathered. It was an ironic match, as my sojourn in Iowa had been a tough, lonely couple of years in my married life. But there I was, singing about Iowa with a full backup chorus.

On Friday nights at the Beacon Sloop Club meetings, the members traded songs with Pete who grinned and sang and told stories. My son stayed close by, but my baby girl passed from lap to lap. That small cabin filled with joyful noise, a whirlwind of harmony swirling around the man who was a musical lodestone for much of my life.

I owe most of the songs I know to Pete Seeger. He is lodged in my cellular memory. He taught us all the power of song. In the same way that I hold my parents in my heart, Pete Seeger is a continuous living presence.

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