By Leslie Kendall Dye
My mother was stylish. She loved romantic touches. She would position a chair at a surprising angle to make a room cozy, place a light-reflecting crystal apple on a table in our sunny front room, and polish my grandmother’s silver candy bowls each autumn. She also cleaned. Boy did my mother love to clean. I believe her love for me was reflected off the surfaces of just-polished silver, in a vacuumed rug, or by some pussy willow elegantly draped in a vase by my bed.
My mother was also a drug addict. For most of my childhood and on into my early teens she took more than one hundred barbiturates and opiates and I’m-not-sure-what-else every month. She had been abused as a child and the boatload of pills she swallowed each day anesthetized her psychic anguish. They also extinguished the light from her eyes. She used to joke that she liked drugs that helped her scrub kitchens, and that was true, but shiny kitchens have cold surfaces.
Still, I’m like my mother. I’m not a drug addict but I get inordinate relief from keeping everything clean and pretty. I like brightening a dreary corner with a bunch of flowers, putting up cheery curtains to distract from a window’s gray view, folding laundry like origami. I also frame out the ugly stuff when I take a snapshot, dismissing anything that isn’t lovely or beautiful. I’ve always thought this was my way of staying connected to an aspect of my mother—the part that assured me of her devotion.
Disaster struck this spring—rendering me incapable of cleaning our apartment. I had a surgery called a “periacetabular osteotomy,” to correct congenital hip dysplasia. The surgeon severed my hip from my pelvis and sawed into my bone to reshape the faulty socket. I left the hospital with six metal screws holding my hip together.
The indignities of post-operative distress are not clean or pretty. My obsession with order has clashed with fatigue and pain. My pelvis is temporarily shattered and I can’t walk much. I hobble through a messy living room, squeaking worn and dirty crutches along a floor that begs to be swept; crumbs are scattered everywhere. I am often still in my nightgown when my child comes home from school.
When I use my crutches, I carry everything in my mouth. If a plastic cup of coffee drops to the floor, it congeals, sticky and pooling, because I can’t bend to clean it up. When I try to carry laundry it results in a trail of clothes along my path. Maintaining fierce control over our six hundred square foot apartment in the sooty urban landscape of New York City is no longer merely Sisyphean, it is now impossible.
A few days ago I stood within a pool of light, balanced on my good leg, dusting a collection of fairy figurines in my child’s window. I was reminded of Laura, the young girl in The Glass Menagerie, and her collection of glass figurines. She polishes them obsessively; they are her means of escape from a mother who, unable to cope with reality, has gone mad.
Suddenly, I stopped dusting the fairies.
Maybe it was obvious to others, but I have been blind to it: I have clung as fiercely to a bottle of Windex and a feather duster as I now must to my crutches. I have tried to control my world by cleaning it, by organizing it, by rejecting chaos.
My mother’s crutch is now mine. Is obsessive control the inevitable inheritance of the co-dependent child? I used to rush to my half-asleep mother, grabbing lit cigarettes just before they fell from her hand to the bed. I kept the room she made for me immaculate. Have I confused love and tidiness?
I abandoned the fairies that day. When my daughter came home I told her she could eat in bed with me until I was recovered, so we could spend more time together. Now she gets oatmeal all over my once pristine quilt, and crayon wax, too. We watch too many cartoons and eat too much junk food and she jumps with glee from the dresser to the bed. We sit on piles of laundry because they cushion my hip while we play cards. All of our clothes are wrinkled.
My mother cleaned her home again and again, trying to repair the torn seam in her heart. But it kept unraveling. She doggedly re-fashioned her world, polished it, crafted illusions. She couldn’t find the beauty in reality. Frightened by it, she resisted it.
My own house is no longer immaculate; it’s grown dingy. I run my hand over the bookcase, feeling the dust.
My house is also sturdier than it was a few short weeks ago.
I thought a messy house could never be homey; I thought love meant creating a perfect nest. I thought this was what made life bearable. Perhaps if you are broken, these are the things you must look at; reality is too harsh.
With my crutches perched to one side of the bed, in my nightgown, sweaty from the heat of late spring, I read to my child while she snacks after school. Cheese and bread crumbs drop to the sheets.
My bone is healing, and as my pelvis shifts from fragile to fused, my parenting blossoms. I dwell in reality now, and it’s far more beautiful than I realized.
And that’s the most romantic image I’ve summoned in a while.
Leslie Kendall Dye was born in Los Angeles but by eighteen, she found her way home to New York City. She is an actress by trade, but for fun she cleans her house, or yours if you ask! Find her at www.lesliekendalldye.net or on Twitter, at @LKendallDye.