To say that my mother was a neat freak is like saying Jeff Bezos makes a good living. I know that most mothers nag their children to clean up their rooms, but mine took it to a whole other level. Let me give you just a few examples, and remember that none of this is made up or even exaggerated. These are all true stories about my mother, Muriel. They even have a chapter dedicated to her in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books. (Okay, that’s not true. But they should.)
If cleanliness is next to Godliness then Muriel is up in Heaven right now sitting in God’s lap. She frequently walked around our apartment with a roll of paper towels in one hand and a bottle of Windex in the other, like a gunslinger looking for his next shoot out. Spraying and wiping every surface in her purview, there was no smudge too slight, no crumb too microscopic and no crevice too crevicey to escape her sanitizing insanity. My mother made Felix Unger look like Oscar Madison.
When I was growing up, we had a cleaning woman come at least once a week. I don’t know how much we paid her but it wasn’t enough. Muriel cleaned alongside her all day long, teaching her the ways of the master. All the other housewives in the neighborhood lined up to hire this woman because they knew she had been trained by The Dirt Whisperer.
Muriel could frequently be found vacuuming the floors at two in the morning while the rest of us slept and our downstairs neighbors cursed at their ceiling. She used to clean under the plastic finger wheel of our rotary phones with a Q-tip to get at every speck of dust that we never knew was there. She’s the only person I ever heard of who carpeted their garage, because it bothered her that the concrete floor always looked dirty.
My mother would get frustrated with us for leaving fingerprints and smudges all around the kitchen. So she kept a dishtowel hanging on the handle of the refrigerator door and made us pull the towel to open it. Then she tied little ribbons around all the cabinet knobs and we were only allowed to pull the ribbons to open the cabinets. If she could have, she would have made us wear gloves all the time. We didn’t have a name for obsessive compulsive behavior in those days. We just called it, Muriel.
My older sister was raised in a room where she was never allowed to wear any shoes. If she forgot to tell her friends to take their shoes off then my mother would come in and yell at them, as if they were misbehaving. Which, in her mind, they were. All because, for some unknown reason, Muriel chose to put a high maintenance floor that was easily scuffed and scratched in a little girl’s room. So my poor sister spent her entire childhood virtually walking on eggshells.
My mother, my sister & me, circa 1967. In my sister’s room. Presumably without shoes.
One day, when I was a teenager, Muriel called me into the bathroom and when I got there I could tell she was upset. To the best of my recollection, this is exactly how that conversation went.
Me: (Already annoyed.) What?
Muriel: (Pointing to the floor.) What’s that?
Muriel: Around the toilet.
Me: (After studying the floor around the toilet.) I guess it’s piss.
Muriel: How did it get there?
Me: (Trying to be funny.) Well, when the urine from my penis hits the water in the bowl it creates a chain reaction that causes the displacement of the two combined fluids to rise into the air and then, due to the forces of gravity, they are sucked back down onto the floor where they settle around the outside of the bowl. It’s just science.
Muriel: (Not amused.) So why doesn’t that happen when I pee?
Me: Because you sit down when you pee.
Muriel: (Completely serious.) Well, from now on, I want you to sit when you pee!
She also kept a plexiglass trash can in that bathroom that she wouldn’t allow me to throw trash in. I would ask, “What’s the point of having a trash can that I can’t use?” She would explain, as if it made perfect sense, that it was a “decorative trash can.” So I would ask in my snide way, “Then what am I supposed to do with the trash, eat it?” After a brief pause where I think she seriously considered this option she’d reply, “Throw it in the kitchen garbage can.” This made perfect sense to her. But, being the rebellious teenager I was, I stubbornly refused. So I just ignored her and threw trash in the can, as any normal person would. But it was the weirdest thing. Every time I went back into that bathroom, the trash can had been mysteriously emptied and cleaned. I don’t know how she knew it was dirty. It was as if she could hear the sound of tissue hitting plexiglass from any room in the house. And I never actually saw her remove it. Somehow, she stealthfully extracted it like an OCD Ninja. When I think of it now, I picture her like Tom Cruise being lowered from the ceiling on wires, snatching up my dirty tissues just before I entered the room, where I failed to see her dangling above me.
This became the source of an ongoing battle and a symbol of our frequent power struggles. Even years later, when I would come home for a visit, she never stopped nagging me about that damn trash can. When she passed away, there weren’t many of her personal belongings that I wanted. My sister rightfully got most of them. The only thing I did want, and did get, was that trash can. To this day, it sits in my bathroom. And it’s usually filled with trash.
The infamous trash can.
Another one of our never-ending debates was about cleaning the glass shower door. She would insist that I squeegee it after each time I showered. Of course, I refused. My argument was that I would work up such a sweat cleaning it after I showered that I would need to take another shower, creating a never ending cycle of showering and cleaning. (While we’re on the subject, why is it that with all the modern technological advancements science has made in my lifetime, no one has ever invented a clear glass shower door that water doesn’t stain? Water doesn’t stain my windshield. Why does it stain my shower door? But I digress…)
One particularly hot summer’s day, I came home soaked in sweat and couldn’t wait to jump in that shower. When I got there my mother was cutting up fruit, preparing for her friends to come over to play mahjong. (For those who don’t know, mahjong was to old Jewish women, what Grand Theft Auto is to teenage boys. Only the women put out a much better spread.) She saw me heading for the bathroom and immediately forbid me from using it right before she was expecting company. I explained my desperate need to wash the day off my body. So she suggested I ask our neighbors across the hall if I could use their shower. But I barely knew the Hartstein’s. I wasn’t going to ask them if I could get naked in their home and mess up their bathroom because my mother won’t let me mess up our bathroom.
This escalated into one of our biggest fights ever. We yelled at each other, for I don’t know how long, until she was exhausted and finally ready to give in, “Fine! You use the shower!” Then she looked down and noticed the large kitchen knife that she had forgotten she was holding was now pointed at me and realized the power she held in her hand. At first, her voice got very soft and then slowly built to a blood-curdling crescendo, “But so help me, if you make a mess in that bathroom…I’m going to stick this knife in your chest!” As my mother threatened my life with a lethal weapon, I ran from the room screaming something about her being a crazy person.
As I write this, I realize how harsh and frightening that sounds. But you had to know Muriel to understand her. She would never have killed me with that knife. That would have been way too messy. She might have snuck into my room in the middle of the night and smothered me with a pillow, but she would never stab me with a knife.
This is not my mother, just a reasonable facsimile.
Many years later, when I was an adult, Muriel came to visit me in my first condo in L.A. I was apprehensive, to say the least. I knew what I was in for. I knew my apartment would be subjected to an inspection that would make Marie Kondo cry. So I prepared for weeks and I brought in a housekeeper the day before she came. I explained the situation, paid her extra and cleaned alongside her for an entire day. When my mother arrived, I proudly walked her into my new home, foolishly confident that I could receive her highly sought after Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But, I swear to you, her first words to me were, “Uch! I don’t know how you live like this.”
I couldn’t believe it. I should have expected it, but I couldn’t believe it. “What?” I pleaded with her, “What are you talking about? This place is spotless.” At which point she marched over to the sliding glass door to the balcony, flung it open and pointed down at the exposed metal track. “Look at this! It’s disgusting.” So, for the first time in my life I looked deeply into the metal track beneath a sliding door and, sure enough, there was a bunch of dirt and gunk in there. Mind you, I did not previously see her inspect this area. It’s as if she knew it was filthy by some sort of weird antiseptic sixth sense she had.
The irony in all this is that, despite all of my resistance and rebellion, I have turned into my mother. Now I squeegee my shower door every day, I clean the tracks under the terrace door regularly and I always sit when I pee. I don’t know if it’s a genetic disorder, a form of brainwashing or a family curse (my sister has it, too) but my mother would be proud.
My mother, my sister & me, circa 1990.
But I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. My mother was much more than just a Cleaning Nazi. She was a larger than life character who had her flaws but she was spirited, independent, kind, loving, generous and funny in mostly unintentional ways. I loved her very much and even though she’s been gone for over 20 years, I still miss her and I know that feeling will never go away. She taught me a lot about how to be a good person...and a great housekeeper.