I hate cleaning, but I was cleaning today out of sheer necessity while unpacking some electronics. I tackled the dust as I went. As I went from task to task, I found myself clutching a white cloth that was getting progressively dirtier as I cleaned the entertainment stand and polished piece by black plastic-and-metal piece of video equipment. The scent of the lemon Pledge and the feel of the cloth in my hand brought back a vivid memory from my 1st grade year. It could have been kindergarten, but I feel it was first grade. My mother’s best friend, our neighbor across the street, died suddenly and silently, a white dust cloth clutched in her lifeless hand.
When my mother didn’t hear from Mrs. Malone that morning, she grew increasingly concerned. She grabbed my sister to go with her to check on her friend. My sister, who was in a home nursing class in high school, went along in case there was a problem that required first aid. Instead, she was the one to kneel down and close Mrs. Malone’s eyes. She was the one to call the police.
There are pieces missing from this story, of course, because my mother is dead now. Why was my sister home from school but I was not? Or was I left at home? Were they able to get into the house because no one locked their doors then? Why do I remember being afraid of the big picture window in the front of Mrs. Malone’s house from then on? Was it something my mother said about seeing Mrs. Malone lying on the floor when she peered in the window? I suppose I could ask my sister for the details, but I’ve noticed a funny thing about my memory versus her memory. It is so different for each of us, even if we experienced exactly the same event, because it is accompanied by our own internal narrative. I might ask her sometime what she remembers, but we will probably have pretty different memories of the day.
What really matters is that the thing I remember and the tale I was told over and over is about Mrs. Malone lying stone dead on her living room floor, clutching that damned white cloth. I don’t know a thing about her hopes and dreams, her youthful ambitions, her schooling, or her origins. All I know is that the fact was she died while cleaning house, and there was something about the way my mother told the story that made me think that Mr. Malone was a slave driver.
Yes, I used the word slave, as in “one who is completely subservient to a dominating influence” (Merriam-Webster). If Mr. Malone was anything like my father, he wanted the house to be clean and supper to be on the table when he got home, whenever that happened to be. My mother said Mrs. Malone’s house was immaculate. Actually, I think it was something more like, “I mean her house is clean. You could eat off her floor!” (In my mind, eating off of her floor became mixed up with “you could fry an egg on that sidewalk,” so I got the mental image of eating fried eggs off of a tile floor in the kitchen.)
Because my mother’s health had been poor since the birth of my little sister the year before, she had a maid who came in and helped with the laundry and the cleaning. (My mother cried when she found out she was pregnant with my little sister, because her health had deteriorated further with each of us. My sister was baby number 6; my father wouldn’t hear of not keeping my mother pregnant until she nearly died.) My memory is that Mrs. Malone did not have any hired help. Her only child, a son, was in college, but even so she was expected to be nothing more than a cook and housekeeper for her husband, to work herself sick in order to provide him a clean, comfortable home and healthy, nutritious meals. At least my mother’s hired help got paid. Mrs. Malone’s reward was more work.
Did she have any choice? It was 1968, and women of childbearing age in those days had been put into a virtual cage. A man considered it scandalous to have a wife who worked. Women were supposed to keep house, cook delicious meals, raise perfect children, and join in the local coffee klatch or bridge club. A woman needed her husband to give permission before she could obtain birth control (because her reproductive rights belonged to whichever man was in charge of her…hence the use of the word slave). If she became a little grouchy as she entered menopause, she was encouraged to take Valium and hormone pills to make her pleasant again. The Stepford Wives wasn’t so far-fetched.
What dreams did Mrs. Malone have? Why didn’t she have a slew of children? I will never know. I do know that my mother had once dreamed of marrying another young man who spent a career in the United States Air Force and traveled the world. She would have seen amazing things with a man who treasured her enough that he stayed away from her until my father died. Then he looked her up and they had an affair that lasted several years – but he was still married. She eventually broke it off. (Please don’t be angry at my mother. I’m not.)
My mother also dreamed of going back to St. Petersburg, Florida, where she had spent a blissful summer with her cousin just before my father came back from his second tour in the Army (with a purple heart) and swept my grandparents off their feet. My mother had gone away for the summer to try and get away from my father so she could think about which of the two young men she should marry. My grandmother convinced her that she needed to get married soon, and my father seemed sincere. In other words, “You’re 17. You need to leave the nest and settle into your adult role.” I saw a picture once of my mother from that summer in St. Pete. She had a bandanna tied around her head, her pants rolled up to the knees, her shirt tied up at the waist, and a big smile that lit up her whole face. She had a fishing pole in her left hand and was holding a large bass on the end of the fishing line in her right.
After that, she married my father and started a miserable existence that included her being beaten on her wedding night (and many nights after), losing her first child within days of his birth, and suffering progressively poorer health because of undiagnosed lupus and repeated pregnancies. She made many suicide attempts over the years and took way too many Valium tablets. She never found peace until my father died in 1982. After that, she went through a period of renewal, and then she finally relaxed. When I asked her once if she thought she would ever get married again, she said, “I had one man, and I don’t want another. I will never answer to another man.” True to her word, she was single until her death. Ironically, she died the night before her and my father’s anniversary.
Mom often had a white dust cloth in her hand, trying to keep the house clean to please my father (and probably to keep up with the immaculate home her best friend kept). She was a little more lackadaisical about cleaning after she left my father. I remember thinking often that I didn’t want to be like my mother — at least not the way she was with my father. She was scared, subservient, hyper-vigilant, and locked into an unrealistic role. I wanted to be free. Turns out, so did she. She would have given her life to be free.
Did Mrs. Malone have a heart attack? A stroke? Was she as frustrated and exhausted as my mother? Did she dream of having a life of her own? If so, I will never know. I can only follow the narrative in my head. In my story, Mrs. Malone was saving part of her grocery allowance every week in a “Mad Money” jar, hidden behind the cans of evaporated milk on the top shelf of the corner cupboard. She was planning to escape to a cabin in the hills, where she could let the dust lie and let the phone ring and ring. She was planning to put her feet up and watch the deer at the edge of the forest. And she was damned if she would die with a dust cloth in her hand.
To that, I say, “Me neither.”