Friday, 4 March 2016

The Ritual of Cleaning

I have just spent a couple of hours cleaning and tidying the house because my eldest daughter is coming to visit. We all do this. We all forget that the person who is visiting was the messiest person in the world when they lived here, and therefore to tidy up mess for them is downright silly. They wouldn’t notice anyway, plus the mess is nowhere near as bad as it was when they lived here.

The specifics put a slightly different complexion on the matter. My daughter, Sarah, is autistic with profound learning difficulties. This means even if she objected to the mess, she would have no way of telling me as she has no speech and virtually no signing ability. The carers who will be delivering her to my door probably won’t come into the house, so I’m not cleaning the place up to impress them. I’m doing it because... it’s what you do. It’s an excuse to get the place into some sort of order for one thing. I am BAD at household chores. I do have a vacuum cleaner, but it’s in the understairs cupboard and there’s a heavy artist’s easel in front of it which I feel curiously disinclined to move, so the pine needles from the Christmas tree (and yes, I’m writing this in March) will have to stay until the painting is finished, and this is a HUGE painting which I expect to take several more months. I’m very good at making excuses. As for dust, I had years of old cobwebs accumulating on the ceiling until a few days ago, which I could have dealt with using a feather duster, but when, a few months ago, I located my feather duster I found the feathers had been eaten away by mites so I chucked it out. I finally replaced it with one that cost all of a pound and is telescopic so will reach into the corners easily, and I have actually cleaned away the cobwebs. They must have been there for years. I have lived in this house for twenty-six years, and am not sure I’ve dusted the ceilings before, because ceilings shouldn’t really get dusty. I also did the hallway for the first time ever – in most households, the hall would have been redecorated within twenty-six years, which would have spruced it up, but my hall has wood panelling which you don’t decorate as it’s a nice original Edwardian feature, so the dust has been clinging to it for a long, long time. It’s amazing how nice it looks now. I must dust it again in ten years or so.

My daughter is visiting because the carers will have realised it’s Mother’s Day this Sunday, so she needs to make her duty visit. That’s fine with me, and it’ll be fine with her. She likes coming here. She has a ritual – she goes into the kitchen for a piece of bread and marmite, then she goes to the toilet to have her pad changed, then she settles down in her favourite armchair and does nothing for an hour or so. I put on some music, which she enjoys, and she plays quietly with a few old toys and usually tries on one of my hats, an orange felt one that’s too big for me so I never wear, but she likes it.

None of this activity requires the house to be cleaned.

I know if I decided to call on my own mother, she would do exactly the same thing. She would go round the whole house tidying and dusting. She would wash the doors to get rid of any grubby bits round the handles. She wouldn’t do any of it very efficiently because she’s elderly and only partially sighted, so tends not to see dirt, but she’d still do it, and I’d only know she’d done it because it’s what she always used to do when visitors were expected. I suppose it’s a ritualistic thing. We want a sense of occasion. I’m aware that there are other women who are obsessive cleaners, and whose houses are pristine at all times, but I can’t get into that mindset. The hours they must spend! I would sooner be writing or painting or just about anything else.


My daughter has arrived, and has come in bearing a most acceptable gift of a bottle of Rosé (I must remember to thank the carers). As predicted, she’s now sitting quietly in her favourite chair, moving in time to the music. She’s enjoyed a long glass of water, but unusually, hasn’t wanted anything to eat. There are birthday cards on the mantelpiece, so she had a good look at those, but otherwise made no ‘comment’ on any changes, despite me having picked up piles of old newspapers and cleared my workspace so that you can actually see the table – but why would she? I’ve been clearing for her home visit for years now, so it’s how she expects it to be and it’s not worthy of comment. One day I must have the courage to leave it exactly how I like it to be, and see how she reacts. One of the qualities of autistic people is their ability to see even the minutest change. She has never objected to change as such, so I don’t think she’d be upset – but I’d love to know if she’d be pleased, if perhaps she’d be thinking ‘Yes! This is how it used to be. I like this!’

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