Lift Your Feet

“Nature abhors a vacuum.Spinoza, Ethics (1677)

All her life, my mother wanted busy children. Nothing infuriated her more than the sight of one of her offspring King around, staring into space. But she had a conflicting ambition which proved paramount: that her house remain at all times tidy and hygienic, that it exhibit, in effect, as little evidence of human activity as possible.

You could turn your back for a moment in my mother’s house, leave a half-written letter on the dining room table, a magazine open on the chair, and turn around to find it had been miraculously “put back,”as my mother phrased it, “where it belonged.”

My wife, on one of her first visits to my mother’s house, placed on an end table a napkined packet of cheese and crackers she had made for herself and went to the kitchen to fetch a drink. When she returned, the packet had been removed. Puzzled, she set down her drink and went back to the kitchen for more cheese and crackers. When she returned her drink had disappeared. Up to then she had guessed that everyone in my family held onto their drinks, sometimes with both hands, so as not to make water rings on the end tables. Now she knows better.

These disappearances had a disorienting effect on our family. We were all inclined to forgetfulness, and it was common for one of us, upon returning from the bathroom and finding that every evidence of his work in progress had vanished, to forget what he’d been up to. “Do you remember what I was doing?" was a question frequently asked, but rarely answered, for whoever turned to address himself to it ran the risk of having his own pen, paper, book, tatting, suddenly disappear into the order of my mother’s universe.

Everv house has its own fragrance, or stench, depending. My best friend’s house always smelled of his mother’s inevitable tuna casseroles and Toll House cookies. My grandparents’ home smelled of pine pillows, and cologne, and mildew, and ancestral foundation garments, and mothballs. But our house was distinctive in that its aroma varied dramatically from room to room. The living room smelled of Brasso and floor wax, the dining room of Lemon Pledge, the kitchen of Mr. Clean and bug spray, the bathrooms of Airwick and powdered cleansers. Indeed, the only room in which there remained some hint of human residence was my father’s study. where Lysol could never quite obliterate the lingering overcast from his Burmese cheroots.

As my mother bustled through the house, spray cans ablast, I wondered if one day all her cleaning compounds would combine into a lethal gas. or spontaneously combust, leaving her dazed and wild-eyed. still vacuuming amid the rubble of her exploded household.

Filth had an animate form in my mother’s mind. It was the beast lurking just beyond the hearth, ready to spring should the flames subside. She often said that if you didn’t keep after it, dirt would overcome you.

It did not help that we lived for a time in Chicago, where the soot used to sift into the house at such a rate that by evening, no matter how much cleaning my mother had done, you could write your name in the stuff on the windowsills. When we moved to India, where we had servants to take care of the cleaning, my mother, instead of accepting this as a respite from her warfare with dirt, concentrated her efforts on germs. She began to see, in every bruised banana, in every nicked papaya, the death of her children.

And in fact I did almost die early in our stay from a delirious, skull-firing disease I picked up from a fly over lunch at school. I came out of my coma a convert to my mother’s phobia, and it got so that when I turned on the faucets in the bathroom I could all but hear bacteria the size of bees whirring out of the pipes and up my nostrils in a great dry flow, and nesting in my lungs to sting and gnaw and whatever else it took to finish me off. The organisms I saw across my field of vision when I stared up at the sky, translucent, elongated beasties drifting along the dome of my eyeball, convinced me that I alone among men, could see germs, and that hour by hour they were slipping under mv eyelids and raging through my brain.

In those days it was customary for American households in Delhi to bathe all their fruits and vegetables in something called “pinky water,” a mixture of water and potassium permanganate which, later studies were to show, had no effect on bacteria. It was a custom their Indian employees took in stride. They had their rituals, we had ours. In fact, considering their fondness for colored water and powdered dyes, they probably had a special understanding of pinky water. They were nonetheless alarmed when, at dinner one evening, we were commanded to spit out our green beans after it had been discovered that they had not been sufficiently pinkied.

My mother was not one of those raving memsahibs who line up their servants three times daily to inspect their fingernails. But she did have her doubts about her staff’s vigilance in matters immaculate. She once commanded our bearer, whose Hinduism prevented him from taking life, to rid the house of flies, and returned to find him dancing through the veranda, trying to shoo them out the screen door with little flaps of his dusting cloth. When she took on the exterminating role herself, she was one day stopped by our Christian driver, Peter John, whose Hindu heritage had not quite worn out. “Madam,”he asked her gently as she set off a bug bomb in the storage room, “why do you kill flies?” “Because,”she explained, “they carry germs, and germs cause sickness.” “Ah, but Madam,” Peter replied conspiratorially, “you and I are Christians, and don’t believe such things.”

Nor could my mother depend on her children. How were we to refuse the odd little silver-foiled milk sweets we were offered in Indian households, or the freshly cut sugarcane which was sold along the road, or the chapati and curry Peter would offer us when we visited his quarters behind the house?

In our side yard in Delhi there was a spigot which jutted up from the ground itself, and if I overcame a morbid preoccupation with disease it was because of the fine, silvery blade of water which continually leaked from its mouth, mucking the dust below. I knew that it was piped in unfiltered from the Jamna River, in which bones, ashes, whole cadavers freely floated from the ghats and slums and villages that lined its banks. But that didn’t matter. And I knew that there was plenty of safe water to be had from the refrigerator, where sealed Thermos pitchers of filtered, boiled ice water were kept. But that wasn’t the same. I wanted to drink as the gardener drank, standing in the sunlight with water spattering my shirtfront and wetting my chin as it fountained up from the ground.

Which is not to say that once I had drunk my fill I did not then furtively retire to the veranda to await my fate. I knew that I had made my tender insides available to all manner of larva, bacterium, virus, amoeba, fungus, worm, germ, and hobgoblin, and I’d sit and listen as the water swirled and gurgled through my belly for some tiny insect battle chatter, for the closing of pincers or the grinding of mandibles. I never heard them, suffered no ill effects I know of, and survived to regard my mother’s terror of disease with unseemly skepticism.

M y mother grew up in a brick house in western Pennsylvania, where her father was a Presbyterian minister. He was a sweet man, but grave, and the household was always under the watchful gaze of the deacons of the church, whose lipless, disapproving stares oversaw my mother’s nightmares for much of her life. The house was dark, curtains half drawn, the woodwork heavy, the wallpaper somber and dense, the lamplight dim. My grandmother had a precarious disposition and a fearful, overextended concept of sin. Her housekeeping was minimal and sporadic: everywhere there were the impedimenta of a hundred interrupted chores: Sunday school papers lying half corrected on the dining table, a broom leaning in the front hall, beds unmade, dishes unwashed in the kitchen sink. It was the sort of congested domestic chaos whose implicit message was that all human labor was futile against the engulfing tide of earthly sin and tribulation.

My mother worshipped her father, collided with her mother. My grandfather’s boyhood had been spent in an immaculate household run by his mother, an illiterate German immigrant whose disposition was as sunny as her scrubbed and ordered kitchen. My mother sensed that her father was greatly pained by the disorder of his own household, and so on those days when it was due for a visit from the elders of the church, or from their smug, judgmental wives, and my grandmother had withdrawn to her room to rail alone against the injustices of her lot, my mother, even as a tiny child, would take it upon herself to tidy up.

So she would stack up all the back issues of church magazines, stuff all the sheet music into the piano bench, snatch up the little tumbleweeds of hair and dust which drifted across the floor, scoop up all the rubber bands, pencil stubs, paper clips, hymnals, notes, coats, boots, and brooms, and create, for the duration of the elders’ visit, a precarious illusion of order and well-being.

Since melancholy was the prevailing mood in her disordered girlhood home, my mother began to equate order and cleanliness with peace and happiness. That the pursuit of order and cleanliness might impinge on her peace and happiness would not occur to her until late in life. In this instance, as far as she was concerned, the end justified the means. And in her few moments of leisure, sipping a cocktail and watching the news as her cooking timer ticked beside her, or chewing dietary toast and celery at lunch, she would sometimes gaze around at her shining, white-walled home, inhale the delicious scent of ammonia and polish, almost hear the harmonious disposition of her family’s possessions throughout the house, and experience a rush of feeling which is reserved for those who are, no matter how hard they may fight it, deeply religious by nature.

I wouldn’t have known what to do with all that background information even if I had had it. I always had the feeling her cleaning was somehow directed at me, and, often enough, it was.

Enraged to find me stretched out on the sofa, arms folded, eyes unfocused, mind blank, my mother would start in by asking, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

I always gave this question a lot of thought before finally replying, “What?”

“I said.’Don’t you have anything better to do?' ”

“Anything better to do?”

“That’s right.”

Well, that was a silly question. Of course I had something better to do. Everybody had something better to do. My mother had something better to do. That wasn’t the point. But before I could engage her in a discussion of the wideranging implications of her inquiry, she would flee in exasperation. Sometimes she would go do errands, leaving the house deliciously quiet, leaving me to half an hour at least of utter inactivity, of watching the dust settle comfortably around me and listening to the refrigerator hum.

But more often she would begin to clean. From a distant corner of the house I would hear cupboards being opened, drawers being slammed shut. “Can’t you stop leaving drawers open wherever you go?” was one of her most impassioned pleas. Her voice broke when she said it. Now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but at the time it did. I’d get this tilting sensation in my stomach when she said it. Why couldn’t I stop leaving drawers open wherever I went, I’d ask myself ashamedly, turning to face the lap of the sofa. What the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t stop leaving drawers open wherever I went?

Then there would be a silence, a doomed, tense stillness, until I would begin to make out the noise of her dusting. Her dusting was not the gentle caress of a soft cloth but the angry whipping of torn, discarded slips and undershorts across the imperceptibly dusty surfaces of the house. This slapping sound, and the occasional hiss of a cleaning spray, would approach until at last she was back in the living room, darting from furnishing to furnishing, growing ever more disheveled as the house grew more immaculate around her, finally she would near me with her smudged, flickering flag and crack it across the side tables, the lamps, the ashtrays, until, unable to stand it any longer, I would make a major concession and sit up.

To my mother, of course, this was not a concession at all, but yet another sign of my insolence and decaying moral fiber. So she would withdraw for a while to prepare her heaviest artillery for the final assault.

I knew what was coming. And as soon as I heard the vacuum cleaner start up I knew she was going to win. But I always tried to hang on to the bitter end in the faint but persistent hope that this time I could outlast her.

Whether it was the headlighted, puffbellied, droning old Hoover or the streamlined, sled-tracked, terribletrunked Electrolux, I could tell where she was in the house just by listening. Fmmmm, she was on the carpet in the study. Brrrr, she had reached the bare hallway floor. Thump, thump, thump, she was making her way down the stairs. Screech, she was moving the dining room chairs from under the table.

By the time she reached the living room I would be poised on the edge of my seat, jaw working, stomach revolving, shoulders high about my ears. By now she would be in a rage, running her machine across the floor with ferocious jerking motions, flupping up the corners of the carpet, sucking up all the detritus of my habitation, until finally she was within range, her eyes feverish with victory, and

she let loose her ultimate war cry, the command that still puts an end to my recumbency: “Andrew, lift your feet!”

My mother’s cleaning seems to have peaked while I was in college. She started to get terrible headaches and psychosomatic digestive problems. Pretty soon, she hired some cleaning women to come in every week. They were Germanic, like her grandmother, and did a good job, and she was delighted to find that she didn’t have to clean up after them half so much as she had cleaned up after her family. My sister has developed a secondhand passion for clean windows, and my brother does the vacuuming in his house, perhaps to avoid having to be the one to lift his feet. I try not to think about it too much, but I have lately taken to cleaning the baseboards once a week. I figure if you don’t keep after them they’ll just get filthy and then where will we be?