My Mess

by Joan Marcus
My Mess by Joan Marcus

Every so often my mother would give in and call a cleaning service. The sheer scope of the mess was too much for either of us to handle, what with her illness and my basic incompetence. One morning I was running late—I had to catch the trolley by quarter-to-eight to make it on time to my summer job at the navy yard—and I didn’t have a chance to do any cursory cleaning after I’d helped my mother to blend up her breakfast so that she could feed it through her gastric tube. I hadn’t cleaned the chopped fruit and spilled yogurt off the counter or gotten the dishes under control. I remember the woman from the service walking through the front door. She was thirty-ish, black, with a neat perm and a light, stylish summer raincoat. Down the hall she went and into the unholy wreck that was our kitchen.

The place was filthy in a way difficult for me to describe. The yellow linoleum was tracked with grime, the table heaped with little cups half full of water, open jars of soy lecithin and protein powder, pills and elixirs and extracts in dropper bottles, mounds and mounds of soiled napkins. There were spent bowls in heaps and papaya seeds scattered like rabbit droppings over the counter. I assume, but do not remember, that the trash stank.

The woman’s face was immobile. She did not look at me. She did not look at my mother. “Could you excuse me for a minute,” she said evenly. “I have to make a phone call.”

She walked back down the hall, past the phone on its cracked tile table. She walked out the front door. She did not come back.

* * *

I have tried my best not to let this memory follow me around. I have waved it off by reminding myself that my father, a merchant seaman, was gone for the summer. My mother was desperately ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a muscle-wasting nervous-motor disease, and I was trying to raise money for college by working long hours at a lousy security job. I had way too much on my plate for a person my age. Still, I can’t help but imagine what was said when that woman finally made her call. “That place was a shit hole—a damned pigsty!” she might have complained. “You people don’t pay me enough for that!” Whether or not she said it, I’m quite sure it was true.

In all honesty, our apartment was never clean—not even before my mother fell ill. I want to say from the start that I don’t blame her for this. The clutter in our home accumulated while she painted portraits, or took on stress headaches from her bookkeeping job, or stirred up a couple of iced coffees for us and listened to me talk about some adolescent crisis or other. She was an attentive working parent and a prominent and prolific local artist. I am the very first person to say that my mother had better things to do than clean.

But I have to tell about the mess, and not for what it says about her. I have to tell first about the soap cake. My mother never kept bottles of dishwashing liquid in the house. She cleaned the dishes with a plain block of Ivory, and she didn’t pick it up and run it under the faucet to get a lather going, rather let it sit in its dish and swiped the rag across the middle, so that after a time a depression formed, scum puddled in the well, and the cake in its dish became flecked with food leavings that never had a chance to rinse off. The sink itself was small, and my mother never filled it to let the dishes soak under clouds of lather the way people in commercials did. She’d just pick up each dish, dip her rag into the soap well, scrub one side of the plate and rinse it, leaving the flip side shiny with grease.

I never really watched her do this. I had to piece the details together with my brother years later, after we had figured out independently, with the help of patient housemates, the great American miracle of hot water and foam in a deep double sink, one side for soaking, the other for rinsing. The important thing here is not that my mother’s method was dysfunctional or unsanitary. It was, but some people live in refugee camps and drink from streams tainted with human waste. No one ever contracted typhus or parasites in my mother’s kitchen. My brother and I were healthy and well fed. Like I said, it isn’t about that.

The point is that I never watched her and I never helped her. She didn’t want help. “Go, get out of here,” she said if I ever tried to lend a hand, which I rarely did. “You’ll just slow me down.” She wanted to do the bare minimum as quickly as possible and get on with her life—teaching me domestic skills was not part of her plan. My job was to do my schoolwork and practice my trumpet. I didn’t have chores, never bagged the trash or folded clothes. My mother made the dishes serviceable and ran the washer once every few days. Occasionally my father would have an anxiety attack about how cluttered everything had gotten and go on a straightening-up binge. For the most part, I learned how to ignore everything, from the moldering bathroom tiles to the garbage heap of my own bedroom with its carpet of books and papers. By the time I hit seventeen and my mother started showing the first signs of ALS, not only hadn’t I learned my way around her dirty, pre-modern kitchen, I didn’t even know how to see the mess. Not really. Not the way people see messes who know what to do about them, as problems capable of being broken down, organized, and tackled one piece at a time. The mess my mother’s illness made, all that food-blending and G-tube feeding and daily bathing on a plastic stool, the food-spattered clothing, the mossy shower curtain, all of it was so weighty and oppressive I could only cower in the face of it.

So it is with difficulty that I call it all back. Perhaps I have made that woman from the cleaning service seem petty for abandoning us. This would only be because I haven’t described the mess sufficiently. I didn’t mention the electric range or the brown vinyl tablecloth or the back wall of the sink with their accumulated crud. I don’t really remember the crud—even the soap cake was an effort. What I do remember is the kitchen window. It was obscured by purple ropes of wandering jew and big, overgrown spider plants that my mother tended faithfully, even after her hands had seized with paralysis. There were avocado plants on the sill growing up out of split seeds in jars of water. There were begonias that flowered year-round. Outside was the back alley, the hind ends of three-tiered apartment houses with wooden porches enclosed in netting. Cars moved west down the alley, gravel popping under their tires. Even in early childhood I knew what direction west was. This was Boston; there was nowhere to go but west.

* * *

Today I notice plants. In my vegetable garden, things change daily. The yellow pear tomatoes, stressed by early cold and damp, are finally gaining ground and putting out new foliage at the core of each plant, silvered over with a tender fuzz. There are three volunteer pumpkins troubling the snap peas but I can’t bear to yank them. I need to build a wooden box out of scrap lumber today and lay in a patch of strawberries, weed the north end of the garden, thin the carrots and spread mulch.

I go back inside, through the kitchen and into the cluttered living room where my husband has stacked folded laundry on the couch. I won’t say that I don’t notice the mess. I notice it with a primal, inarticulate part of my brain that generates feelings it cannot name. The lobster tossed in the pot feels agony, I am sure of it. It doesn’t have a word for the pain, can’t anticipate or consider it. Nevertheless, the lobster feels. Just yesterday I opened the refrigerator door and noticed the baby bottle full of milk that my friends left here by mistake when they visited with their eighteen-month-old nearly four weeks ago. I was troubled by this. It seemed wrong that the bottle was sitting in the doorway next to the Paul Prudhomme chipotle marinade and the jar of stone-ground mustard. It was like finding a can of sardines on the dessert tray at a restaurant, that sense that categories had been violated. Looking at the spoiled milk through the clear, orange plastic of the bottle, I felt a little queasy. I swallowed and shut the door.

Only a few hours ago, my husband swung open the fridge and reached for the salsa. “Gee, you think we should wash out that bottle and send it back to Julie and Nathan?” he laughed. Neither of us had rinsed out the bottle, but in his case, it was because he was distracted with work and childcare. I was distracted too, but the real reason that I didn’t wash it out is that doing this never occurred to me. The bottle troubled me, but I didn’t really think there was anything I could do about it. I’m serious about this. If you had forced me to explain in words what a person with her friends’ souring milk in her fridge should do, I would of course have talked about the rinsing and the scrubbing with a bottle brush, the packing in a little padded envelope and the purchase of postage. But I wasn’t using that part of my brain when I looked at the bottle, the functional part that knows how to give things names and solve basic problems.

I experience this disconnect every day, in every room of my house. There is mess here, and I’m not happy about it. I walk through the kitchen and feel vaguely cast down or deeply ashamed, depending on how dirty everything seems, but I do not acknowledge or act on these feelings. A mess that goes untended carries with it a moral imperative. It is a sign of sloth and disintegration, of disregard for one’s own person. And it’s something you do to yourself; it’s nobody’s fault but your own. Mess that happens when friends gather is a different matter. “We’ve left this place such a wreck!” a colleague exclaims after a long evening. “Let me help you clean it up.” I always refuse—gladly, in fact. I look around at the stacked plates and empty bottles with something like pride. They are proof that pleasant things have been going on in my home. They are also the messes that I clean most willingly.

But the mess under the couch when I move it aside to find those missing nail clippers. The mess of eggshells at the bottom of a burned pot in the sink. The bills and school forms and crayons and scraps of construction paper that accumulate on every surface while I’m not paying attention. The tremendous heap of laundry under the bedroom window. These are the messes that sit for days, fester and rankle and weigh me down. There is a circularity to how I think about them, if you can call it thinking. A mess of my own making is ultimately my own fault—my slovenly inattention has led to this pileup on the counter. If it is my own fault, it stands to reason that I deserve it. Clearly I am the kind of person who would let a mess like this metastasize, and any problems that occur as a result (difficulty locating keys, tax forms, utility bills) are to be expected. Thus the very existence of the mess justifies my complete lack of initiative in getting rid of it. This may be a perverse way of thinking, but it is hardly uncommon. It’s the same excuse many of us use for neglecting diet or exercise—that we have failed before and are therefore the sort of people who fail at this, our doughy midsections offering up empirical proof of our inadequacy.

I live with my messes, or in them, convinced without really thinking about it that they are inextricably bound to me, to the kid I was and the woman I have become. My husband does dishes (efficiently and with the help of both liquid soap and detergent), hefts laundry baskets around, folds clothes that he leaves for me to put away (occasionally I do). The girls help out some. But things don’t really get cleaned or shelved, and soon everything goes to pieces. I might look around bewildered from time to time and wonder how things got this bad. Mostly I don’t look.

Until something happens to force my hand. Maybe it’s a phone call that does it. Maybe my husband takes the call, then finds me out in the garden where I’m digging a thistle with a twelve-inch taproot out from between patches of rhubarb. (I am not a lazy woman. I am determined to show this.)

“That was Maureen,” he says. “She’s got that princess desk she told us about. She wants to bring it over.”

“What, today?”

He nods. “I told her not before three.”

Maureen. She’s the mother of my oldest girl’s best friend and would easily forgive me my disaster of a home. It doesn’t matter. I run into the kitchen and look around. Suddenly, I am able to see the mess for what it is—embarrassing but temporary, and manageable in stages. “Girls,” I shout, “help your father straighten up the living room. I’m doing the kitchen.”

Anna appears in the doorway. “Why? Is someone coming over?”

“Emily’s mom. Go, pick up those monopoly pieces. And help your sister put her books away.”

I finish loading the dishes and start cleaning surfaces, throwing away scribbled-up papers and sticky, half-used containers of child’s bubble soap, a wad of yellow Play-Doh stuck all over with pipe cleaners, a deflated plastic bag with a few dried-out baby carrots at the bottom. I clear the counters one jar of peanut butter at a time. Here’s a hair tie, a paper clip. Stick them in my pocket. Take that stack of bills and throw them in my office. Out comes the Formula 409 and I’m scrubbing counters, fridge, the washer and dryer that became a linty mess when I wasn’t looking. Suddenly I notice the linoleum for the first time in two weeks. There’s just enough time to mop, and meanwhile I can hear the vacuum going in the living room, and I start to feel a little surge of something like joy. Perhaps not that strong, but my seratonin levels are surely rising. The place looks good. I finish mopping and move to the living room to tackle those last few cluttered surfaces. I get out the Windex and shine the glass top to the vanity. And there’s the knock on the door.

I have often wondered why I can’t force this clear-sightedness on days when no one drops by. I like to think that I have something of an imagination. Shouldn’t it be possible to live my life as though at any moment some fussy visitor might come walking through my kitchen door? If the mere suggestion of embarrassment is enough to make me see my home from the outside in, with the critical eye of someone who embraces community standards of cleanliness (someone who cleans homes for a living, say), shouldn’t I be able to flip that switch at will? Do it for long enough and I might even develop a new set of ethics, a hyper-vigilance to clutter and filth that would become second nature.

I have tried to do this. Or maybe I just think that I’ve tried. In any case, it isn’t easy to sustain that kind of energy in the absence of a real threat. And I have to think there is a better way to manage my home than to keep myself on perpetual shame alert. I just don’t need that kind of grief. What I need, I believe, is a new way of seeing all this mess.

* * *

When my first child was twelve or thirteen months old, she would play with her food instead of eating it. This isn’t uncommon in young children, though this one probably played more and ate less than most others. She was a pale, willowy baby, never interested in solids as anything other than an artistic medium. We would toss everything down on her plastic tray as the pediatrician had recommended, then watch anxiously, hoping that some of the food would make its way into her body.

One time the mash she made was particularly ugly. The amalgam of peas and chopped pasta and sweet potato and hunks of soggy bread became too much for us, and my husband got up to remove the tray. “You’re making a mess,” he told the baby, unlatching the tray and sliding it free.

“Ah!” she complained, reaching for the food as it disappeared. “Mess! Mess!!!”

Of course she was upset. “Mess” for her was just a word that described what she’d made—colorful, textured, the product of her industry. We might as well have told her, “You’re making a finger painting,” then taken the painting away. She would learn soon enough that words like “mess” have a censuring function, that they force us to curb our impulses, or undo the damage that our troublesome habit of living has wrought on our surroundings. Lately, however, I’m thinking that her original idea might have been the best.

Is it possible to separate dirt and clutter from its cultural baggage? Looking around my office right now, I see what could only be called a bona fide mess. Books and papers aren’t the half of it. There’s a pack of dental floss and a pile of used tissue next to the computer, an unbent paper clip and a flattened raisin box and a half-eaten bag of wasabi rice cracker mix and a gift ribbon from my daughter’s birthday party and a lot more that I won’t name. The computer needs dusting and the rug hasn’t been vacuumed in ages. I see a plastic fork on the ground, a child’s bead necklace, a wad of pink crepe paper, a cobweb forming between the filing cabinet and the floor. My cat is lying on top of a pile of discarded t-shirts, licking her belly.

I would like to convince myself to look on all of this with kindness. See how busy I’ve been! Look at these stacks of manuscripts! Look at all of the research material I haven’t had time to file! By leaving a pack of dental floss next to the computer, I manage to care for my gums daily while checking my e-mail. How wise of me! The bead necklace on the ground is charming, the crepe paper and bow a tiny reminder of a recent celebration. This room has been used and used hard. My office opens out onto the deck through a glass slider. People tramp back and forth all day, from deck to garden to garage and back inside. It’s public space and I don’t mind. My daughters bring in handfuls of phlox from the fields. They sit down at the computer, leaving their flowers to wither on top of the filing cabinet, and play their math games amid stacks of Xeroxed articles and piles of books and folders. We share a snack and leave the bag nestled between the printer and a box of CDs. Then we go off and do something else.

There it is. A mess without the negative baggage—something we made, evidence that we’ve been going about our business. We are born, we have interests and ambitions, build things up and break them down, get sick and get better, age and finally die. We leave our mark, our mess, our imprint on the earth. I would like to learn to own this particular mess. I would like to accept it for what it is—an affirmation, a stew of stuff in the greater stew of my life. Finally, right now, without shame or self-recrimination, I believe that I would like to clean it the hell up.

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in Fourth Genre; The Sun; The Georgia Review; Alaska Quarterly Review; Laurel Review; Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers; and elsewhere. She is a two-time recipient of the Constance Saltonstall grant for upstate New York writers. She lives and teaches in Ithaca, New York.