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Cleaning Up

My house is a mere shell of it’s happiest self now that the Christmas decorations are gone. Early in December each box I bring out of the garage seems to contain multitudes of magic and memories, and each January it is increasingly difficult to get those same multitudes of red, gold and green back into their nine plastic bins as my house returns to its lifeless and dull hull made more so by the college kids heading back to their technicolor lives leaving me sitting here in beige and white.

I was talking with my friend Tina as I pulled candles off my windowsill, taking with them swiss coffee paint stuck to the tape. “I think one of the best parts of being Jewish would be not having to put away Christmas décor,” I said. “Well, you don’t have be Jewish to cut back on your decorating,” she teased. At Tina’s last Hanukkah party, she stuck candles in a cheese log and we accidentally celebrated the wrong night, so I’m not taking any holiday decorating advice from her, but she’s got a point. I do overdo it. I don’t NEED the 4-foot wreath that hangs above my fireplace, but I love the gargantuan statement of festivity.

My friend Jamie says we spend our whole adulthood trying to recapture the magic of our childhood Christmases and by the time we have it down, our kids leave home and with them, the magic we worked so hard to find.

I also hate taking down the decorations because for over a month dusty surfaces have been covered in garland, and twinkle lights tend to drawn the eye away from dust bunnies and grimy window panes. Now there is no excuse for not getting out the Pledge and Windex. Life is back to its normal routine. Jingle bell socks and snowman jammies no longer fill the hamper and I don’t have to pick red and green foil candy wrappers out of my son’s pockets before throwing his jeans in the washer.

I guess one thing that is good about having kids in college is that there’s far less laundry, but I’d give anything for sweaty leotards and stinky volleyball socks about now. I’d give anything for the laughter and banter that would drown out the sound of the clock ticking above my mantle where that giant wreath happily hung until the second weekend in January.

I actually never realized that clock audibly ticked until my son left home. He always filled the house with guitar music, laughing friends, video game gunfire and his love of superhero sagas and action movies.

Admittedly, my husband and son hate watching such films with me. When I see battle scenes, furniture flying, glass breaking, blood on the walls, all I can think of is, “Who is going to clean up that mess?” Car chases have me concerned about insurance rate increases for the hapless vehicles left in their wake. When foot chases leave fruit stands toppled, plums and oranges flying everywhere and rolling down the street, I think, that’s a small business owner! What’s she supposed to do now?

I have to turn away from the food fights in films like Animal House and Fried Green Tomatoes as if they are Tarrantino blood sequences. Seriously, who is going to clean that up?

When I was in college, a popular film was 9 ½ weeks. The refrigerator food scene is quite sexy, but as Mickey Rourke dribbles honey all over Kim Bassinger’s mouth and chest, surely the floor gets sticky. It’s difficult for me to get lost in the sensuality. Isn’t that just an ant problem just waiting to happen?

I was a mother well before I was a mother.

But one time in college when it had rained for days, the intramural field behind my dorm became a sea of sludge. A group of guys from another suite knocked on our door, “Want to play mud football?” and in the swirl of yeses coming from my suite- mates I got caught up in the frenzy and found myself riding down in the elevator wearing my ugliest sweats and rattiest shoes and heading to what once was a neglected field of crabgrass and divots to what was now the perfect habitat for Hampshire pigs or bored college kids who’d just downed a case of PBR.

We played for hours until we were clay-coated from eyebrows to toe-nails and it might have been the most fun I’d had to date or even since. Once I gave into the mess, I went for it with abandon, slide tackles, diving catches and celebratory splash dances.

And as we tracked chunks of mud in the elevator and down the X-shaped halls of our high-rise dorm like shedding octopi, it never dawned on me “Who is going to clean this up?” It was liberating, until the letter came from our RAs letting us know how disrespectful we’d all been to the team of janitors who oversaw our 10 floors of college craziness.

I promptly reverted back to my quest for clean. Some of that may have started when I was a child myself. My brother and I used to play these marathon games with our Fisher Price Doll House, Fire Station and Airport. We’d supplement the living spaces with additional housing built out of Lincoln Logs and ABC blocks. Our city would spread from the living room hearth and down the two stairs that led to the entry hall and then into the den. Mom would vacuum up the dog hair around our village for days and dad would grumble as he navigated our developing dollhouse people story-lines, stepping over the classroom and birthday party scenes, the robbery in progress, the heroes and villains.

I could have existed in that land of make-believe for at least another week, but inevitably my brother would tire of the game after three days or so and embody a natural disaster. Hurricane Billy would take out the town or a tornado would destroy everything in the path of my brother’s Keds. I would not only lose the magic of my make-believe metropolis, I would be forced to clean up the mess, while my brother, the demon of demolition, found some excuse to get something from his bedroom and never come back.

Picking up those thumb-sized dollhouse people and building blocks likely helped form the foundation of my need for neatness and order. Nothing built with such heart should be so easily destroyed. Like-wise no garland hung while Perry Como sings “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” can come down callously. There is a melancholy that creeps in when things we love end. But the clock ticks on and before I know it, those nine boxes will come back out and my children, brimming over with another year of knowledge and life experiences, will bring their music, mess and magic back home.

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As shared at Story Salon January 22, 2020

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