Yesterday my husband performed an impressive trick. He made the washing machine overflow with fluffy suds. I discovered this when I emptied the hamper in our bathroom, wrapped the clothes in a towel, and carried them to the laundry room. Upon arrival, I found the washing machine beeping as frantically as a L.A. commuter, while all of the orange and red alert lights blinked at a level capable of inducing a laundry-related Grand Mal seizure (now that would be hard to explain). I had not yet eaten breakfast and felt ill-prepared to deal with the situation on an empty stomach. But no time is the right time for your washing machine to have a psychotic episode. When I lifted the lid, soap suds bubbled over. A detective hot on the trail, I went in search of my husband (since the cats don’t know how to use the washer and no one else lives with us). I found him contentedly surfing the internet in his man cave (he calls it his office but it’s a man cave, trust me).
“What’s up with the washing machine?” I asked, poking my head in, because all I can really fit in there with all the stuff lying around is my head. “What do you mean?” he replied innocently. “I mean what did you put in it?” I pressed forward intrepidly. “My gym clothes,” he answered, with a baffled expression. “You need to come see this. Your gym clothes are frothing at the mouth,” I informed him. When we arrived at the sea of foam in the laundry room, I asked him what he had poured into the machine to wash his gym clothes with. (Dishwashing liquid? Carpet cleaner? Industrial-strength mighty-foam?) He said that he had added some Dr. Bonners Sal Suds to the wash. This was a departure from using laundry detergent and I thought, how adventurous. Or not. “What possessed you to do that?” I asked. “I was trying to get rid of the chlorine odor from the pool,” he explained. He swore he put hardly any Sal Suds into the load. Perception of what’s “hardly any” may be a fundamental difference between men and women.
It took Ron about twenty minutes to bail the suds out of the machine into the utility sink, clear the control panel, and get the machine functioning again. “I think I’ll go write my blog,” I said as he was bailing. He gave me the don’t-you-dare look, so naturally his epic laundry fail is my topic of discussion for today. It got me remembering back over the many years that we have kept house together. Sharing household chores is one of the defining features of a marriage. Unfortunately for me, I came into the marriage with a handicap, which was that my mother had the notion that I was a lousy housekeeper and that Ron had a greater commitment to and firmer grasp on cleaning house than I did.
My mother was what Jews call a balabusta, which is a Yiddish word that doesn’t translate well into English, but basically means an excellent homemaker (kind of Martha Stewart on steroids only with frizzy hair and a pressure cooker). Mom’s home was always immaculate. She was notorious for stealth cleaning when she visited me (when I was single, when I was married, when I had children, whenever). She would scour my cooking pots and baking dishes until they sparkled so blindingly that I had to wear sunglasses in the kitchen for weeks after she visited. She dusted my tchotchkes (more Yiddish—means knickknacks but I can’t handle all the “k”s in the English version, they make me dizzy) and wiped down my windows with glass cleaner. She washed my stairs, scrubbed my kitchen ceiling, oiled my piano, ironed my napkins, reupholstered my easy chair, braided a rug for the driveway, vacuumed the top of my refrigerator, weeded my carpet, and flossed my cats’ teeth.
Honestly, my house was never that dirty. It just wasn’t up to her standard. She didn’t trip me about it. She just cleaned it. After Ron and I moved in together, whenever Mom came to visit, Ron made a point of speaking the housecleaning lingo with her. He talked such a good game that he convinced Mom that if any cleaning was happening at our house at all then it was because of him. He talked with her about the merits of different types of floor cleaners. He knew which bathroom cleaner would really get the mold out of the caulking (never mind that it was the one that emitted fumes so atrociously toxic that I would hyperventilate for a week and break out in hives when he used it in my bathroom). Ron and Mom talked for hours about vacuum cleaner attachments, how to polish silver, wood furniture finishes, and what kind of long-handled sponge to use to wash the walls. Mom loved him. In fact she loved him so much that she proposed to him. (I am not making this part up.) She asked him to marry her daughter and he accepted and the next thing I knew they were choosing plates together at Macy’s and I had to buy a decent pair of shoes because I was going to be a bride in a wedding.
Mom rarely discussed housecleaning with me, probably because she didn’t think I had the vocabulary necessary. But I was the one who did the daily chores in our house during our childrearing years (when the children were old enough to help, they were assigned chores). I did the grocery shopping and cooking (except for meat, which Ron had to cook because I’m vegetarian, and inevitably when he cooked meat the smoke detector went off so that the children started calling it the meat detector), I did the laundry, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher (and washed anything by hand that needed it), emptied the kitchen compost (and shoveled it out later to put in the garden), vacuumed, cared for the pets, cleaned the toilets, swept the kitchen floor, knocked down the cobwebs, and all the rest. To his credit, Ron has always done many of the more heinous chores that are not required every day; usually the ones that require muscle. He mops the floor in the house we live in now, which is essential for me because I can’t do it without putting my back out; besides, he’s ex-Navy so he needs to swab the deck fairly often or he is in danger of having lapses in judgment that result in washing machine suds attacks. He has always been the one to scrub the stovetop every week or two. I never really did get the hang of cleaning stoves. He still has an obsession with bathroom mold and douses the shower in various chemicals that make the towels curl. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mom didn’t understand the division of labor in our household.
One time, when I had been married for about twenty years, Mom turned to Ron at the dinner table and offered to “buy him a new vacuum cleaner.” She had apparently attempted to vacuum our goldfish and discovered that our vacuum cleaner sounded like a helicopter landing. I couldn’t let that pass. I thanked Mom for her generous offer and explained to her that Ron rarely vacuumed. My children were teenagers by then and they earned their allowance by doing chores regularly. I told her that one of her grandsons had been vacuuming the house once a week for over a year as one of his chores; and when the children didn’t do it, I did it, not Ron. (I thought, but did not say, that if she wanted to buy Ron a useful housecleaning tool she should get him a gas mask for when he cleaned the bathroom with his noxious mold-fighters.) She seemed surprised and a bit disappointed that Ron didn’t often vacuum, but she heard me. Soon afterward, she bought us a new vacuum cleaner, for which we were truly grateful.
Honestly, thinking back on it now, I find it so touchingly sweet that Mom viewed Ron as a kindred housecleaning soul, that I don’t mind so much that she gave him credit for doing 90% of the cleaning that happened in our house. Now that she’s gone (it’s been more than ten years), I wish I could hear her talk housecleaning with Ron again. They seemed to enjoy it so much. It makes me smile to imagine her looking down on our laundry room debacle yesterday morning from the unfathomable spirit world and seeing her perfect-homemaker son-in-law bailing mounds of cloudy suds out of our washing machine. She would have suggested he use a little white vinegar to get the chlorine smell out of the gym clothes. Or something equally practical and simple. Vinegar would be good. Then he would smell like salad, which is my favorite lunch.
This is not Ron, it's a stock photo, but so apropos!