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Mama Was A Germophobe

Mama was a germaphobe . . .
Wherever there was a germ, she would burn it
And when she died
She left me Clorox and Pine-Sol

-- A parody of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," with apologies to The Temptations

I was cleaning one of my bathrooms yesterday, and the smell of lemon-scented Pine-Sol wafted from the sinks, countertops, toilet and bath tub. French lavender-scented Method All-Surface Cleaner had been slathered on the window blinds that I had previously dusted. The windows, mirrors and chrome sink fixtures shined with the assistance of Windex. I had finished sweeping and Swiffering the floor and was getting ready to mop and clean the baseboards.

I thought to myself, “Mom would be proud.”

You see, my mom, SWIE, was a germaphobe. Or rather, a germ assassin. Her cleaning philosophy could be summed up as this: If a surface was going to have contact with food, any human orifice, or feet, it had to be disinfected. Dishes, flatware, pots and pans were washed with dishwashing detergent and Clorox. Sheets, pillow cases, any manner of bed linens, bath towels, underwear -- no matter the quality or color – as well as bath mats were laundered in laundry detergent, hot water, and Clorox. Toilet bowls, sinks, showers, and bathtubs were cleaned with Pine-Sol. Floors were mopped with Pine-Sol. And kitchen towels were washed separately from bath towels, underwear or anything else in order to avoid any cross-contamination in the cleaning process. I think she even put bleach in carpet cleaning solution.

She came by this germ aversion naturally and through personal experience. My mom once briefly worked doing cleaning in a hospital, coming into contact with all variants of human effluents. I think that’s where she developed her love of Clorox. She might have also gotten her germ aversion from her mother, who had once worked briefly as a maid in a cathouse, or at least that’s what I remember her telling me. Contrary to popular stereotype, “soiled doves” of the bordello persuasion are pretty particular about their “work environment,” so to speak, or at least they were at that time. My grandmother said she laundered a whole lot of sheets in scalding hot water, detergent, and, I think, Clorox. And this was before washing machines. But my grandmother was always pretty particular not only about cleanliness but timeliness. She would always brag to my mother that she always had her house cleaned from top to bottom AND Sunday dinner on the table by 2:00 pm on Sunday, a deadline my mother wasn’t always able to meet.

In other words, my mother couldn’t stand dirtiness. She even had somewhat of a grading system.

If your house was dirty, she would say that it was “just nasty.” But it was the way she said “nasty” – drawing out the “a” to a long “aaaaahhhhh” that sounded like, “Well, that’s just naaaahhhsty.”

If your house was beyond nasty, it was filthy. Nasty was for untidy; filthy was for visible dirt, dust, mold, mildew, dried food, poop, etc. on surfaces exposed to food, human orifices, or feet. And then there were her superlative phrases: “That don’t make no kind of sense” added to “nasty” or “filthy” ratcheted up the dirtiness factor; “That don’t make a lick of sense” ratcheted it up another notch; and if “That don’t make a lick-a-bit of sense” was added to “That’s just filthy,” well, then, you had reached the height of uncleanliness in my mom’s book, to wit: “Well, that’s just filthy. That don’t make a lick-a-bit of sense.”

In order to maintain my mother’s sense of order and cleanliness, she had us kids on a cleaning schedule. Every day, the following tasks were carried out by the six of us: 1) Cleaning the front bathroom; 2) Cleaning the back bathroom; 3) Dusting and polishing the furniture in the living room, cleaning the patio window with Windex, and vacuuming the living room and the hallway; 4) Morning dishes; and 5) Evening dishes. Mind you, this was a 1200 or so square foot house. Cleaning the bathrooms entailed cleaning the sinks, toilets, and bathtub or shower with Pine-Sol, cleaning the mirrors with Windex, sweeping the floor, and putting out a clean hand towel. Bath mats were switched and the floors were mopped, with Pine-Sol, weekly. Evening dishes required two people – one to wash, the other to wipe – and entailed washing (with detergent and Clorox, of course) and drying dishes, putting away leftovers, taking the stove apart and cleaning all the eyes, wiping down the counters (with detergent and Clorox, of course) and wiping off the dining room table cover (she had a solid maple dining room table with a plastic cover), and sweeping the floor. I remember the discussion that went on about whether I, the youngest child, should be added to the cleaning rotation. The test? If you were tall enough to stand on a chair and put away a dish, you were added to the cleaning rotation. I think I was seven when it happened. My brothers had it worse -- they had the gender-specific chores of taking out the garbage, yard work, and poop-scooping added to their daily chores.

Morning dishes, however, was the most crucial task of the day. My mom got home at 4:15 or 4:30 every day, so morning dishes had to be done before she got home. Why? My mother refused to cook in a dirty kitchen. Absolutely refused. If she came home and the kitchen wasn’t clean – I mean, nothing on the counters except appliances, no dishes drying in the dishstand, no food bits in the sink -- she would change out of her work shoes into her house slippers, grab her purse, car keys, and cigarettes, and go to her sister’s house and leave us without dinner. That wasn’t such a big deal until my dad came home and wanted to know why there was no dinner. If you were the person responsible for there not being dinner, there was hell to pay. My dad loved my mother’s cooking almost as much as he loved us, and after a long day working on printing presses, he’d come home hungry and grouchy because of his hunger. He was not someone to be starved because of an indolent child who lost track of time watching Star Trek.

Weekends had their own rhythm. Bed linens were stripped and laundered – and I’m talking seven sets of bed linens – in – what else? – hot water, laundry detergent, and Clorox. Floors were mopped in Pine-Sol. My mom upped her cleaning game on the weekend, due in small part, I think, because of the possibility of a visit from her mother. If your house wasn’t clean, Granny would talk about you. My mother didn’t want to be “that” daughter – you know, the daughter that “don’t keep house” -- so if we got wind that Granny was coming, we would fly into action to clean and tidy the home beyond our usual tasks to meet not only our mother’s approval, but our grandmother’s.


My mom loved Clorox, Pine-Sol, Windex, and her BFF later in life would be Tilex. She would have loved the Swiffer. She was not an environmentalist; in fact, it was the germs of the environment that were to be battled and conquered, in her view. No "Simple Green" or "Seventh Generation" for her, no sirree. She would routinely take a week of vacation during the spring just to do spring cleaning on her house, washing walls, carpets, drapes, outside windows, etc., believing that no one would ever clean her house as well as she did because it was her house. She didn't like dirt or dirty smells, and woe be unto those who didn’t spray air freshener after “dropping some kids in the pool.” She would hunt you down, ask you, “Did something just crawl up inside you and DIE?”, and then, with one hand holding her nose and the other wielding Glade Air Freshener like a flame thrower, would kick open the offending bathroom's door like a DEA agent and prepare to do battle with your poop stench.

I don’t always meet my mother’s cleaning standards as to frequency, but I do meet them as to breadth and depth of cleaning, even ratcheting up my game a bit. My obsession is baseboards: You can tell if my life is all out of whack if there’s dirt on my white baseboards. My husband thought I was being obsessive when I told him that we had to go around our entire rental with pails of hot water and Spic-and-Span (Pine-Sol is too hard on paint) to clean all the white baseboards in a 2600 square foot house. When he saw the effect, he was hooked. A baseboard cleaning convert.

My mom would be proud of us. That is, if she came on the right day.

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