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The Irrelevance of Cleanliness in Relation to Godliness: A Poem

Updated on December 6, 2015

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,

menopause, divorce—

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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    • healingsword profile image

      Ann Wehrman 6 years ago from California

      Hi Doc Snow, Thank you for reading my poem and for your supportive comment here and fan mail today. I am honored and glad that you enjoyed this poem. Easing of tensions between parent/child in the last years of life is indeed a "grace"!

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 6 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      An honest and powerful memorial.

      I, too, struggled some with my mom, but had the grace of ease between us in the last years of her life.

      Thanks, hw!

    • healingsword profile image

      Ann Wehrman 6 years ago from California

      Hi Om,

      Thanks for your deep comment on my Hub. Mother-daughter relations are seldom anything but deep. I'm glad you and your mom are finding some common ground over a longer distance.

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

      When I was a kid, I didn't have a good relationship with my mom, either. But since I moved away, the long distance has made us closer somehow. Now we're in different countries but talk to each other more often than when we lived under the same roof.