The Irrelevance of Cleanliness in Relation to Godliness: A Poem
Wäscherinnen ~ Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
A Game of Rummy, like Mom and I Shared during Our Last Days Together
The Irrelevance of Cleanliness in Relation to Godliness
(for my mother, Ruth)
Down wooden stairs laced with spider webs,
accompanied by increasingly audible
scurries of rats in the walls
running their drunken chases, nose to tail,
daily, she descended to the basement.
On its east wall, a second,
smaller, half flight of steps wound up
to the storm cellar’s wooden doors,
opened onto the black dirt vegetable garden
and gravel drive, our backyard in rural Illinois,
not her elite girlhood’s St. Louis apartment—
honoring instead the commitment she’d made,
to love and obey, to follow.
Raised with servants and private schools,
Mom endured the basement,
where Dad had installed washer and dryer,
also made for himself a hobby room
on the basement’s opposite side, a wall between—
space in which he could hammer out things on weekends.
Every day Mom worked down there, ignored the bugs,
slimy, crawling, biting things,
and the fact that one wall at the main stairs’ end
had never been finished,
only narrowed into a crawl space-sized
mass of packed black earth, then stopped
at dark possibilities.
Mom was valiant,
accompanied by Barney,
her familiar Weimaraner Shepherd mix,
who eagerly and fearlessly laid herself down
that Mom might command her.
Barney barreled down the stairs underfoot
then waited, content, as Mom separated clothes,
added a soupcon of bleach or detergent,
timed the loads of underwear, jeans, sheets, and towels,
sometimes soaked them overnight.
Mom occasionally made my sister or me run down,
cycle the washer around one more time,
move the clothes to the dryer, or fold,
but it was she who masterminded the process
without fail year after year, despite
betrayals, miscarriages, children leaving,
teeth being pulled for dentures,
When she made her debut
mid-century, in St. Louis society,
her gown was worth a crystal chandelier;
the next day, worn once, she gave it away.
In the end, I stayed with her for a while before she died,
in the granny cottage where she lived alone.
The laundry had stacked up for weeks
since her heart attack, since leaving the hospital.
In her closet hung only thrift store finds,
nothing matching, tightly packed, un-ironed,
clean yet stained, reeking of Lucky Strike smoke
that filled every room she inhabited.
I washed, dried, and folded piles of worn clothes and sheets,
the Laundromat as impersonal
as my twenty years away from home;
repeated the process weekly during those last months,
which were not long enough
to wash away the lost years between us.
We shared nightly rounds of Scrabble and Rummy;
she saw I could balance a checkbook
and listened to me agonize
about not yet having found the right man—
there was time for me to cook meatloaves for her,
(she grazed upon handfuls of candy instead),
enough time for me to reconnect with her,
and to realize beyond doubt that she understood
the relative unimportance of doing the laundry.
Understanding and Forgiving
Like many of you, I often struggled to make harmony with my mother. I was fortunate to spend a year with her before she died, however, and though we still bickered, I was adult enough by then to see her as a human being with strength and faults and to try to forgive her faults. I'm grateful for the time we had together at the end of her life. Mom's personality was tough and authoritative, and yet her deep heart and wide intellect made up for that autocratic forcefulness against which I rebelled. I will always remember her sense of humor, sensitivity, and beauty, and I hope that there is a way in the afterlife to heal and restore all that was broken in her during this life. She taught me to be strong as a woman and to honor and believe in myself. She exemplified choosing, despite great sacrifice, deep values of family and love over money and social status, even though that family struggled and finally broke apart. Her weaknesses and selfishness were strong, but her faith and sacrifice were also strong.
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