If cleanliness is next to Godliness then my mother, Muriel, is up in Heaven sitting in God’s lap. 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 these stories are made up or even exaggerated.
Muriel 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 were weren’t allowed to touch any handles or knobs. She kept a dishtowel hanging on the handle of the refrigerator door that she insisted we pull to open it. She tied little ribbons around all the cabinet knobs that we had to pull to open the cabinets. If she could have, she would have made us wear gloves inside the house at all times.
We didn’t have a name for obsessive compulsive behavior in those days. We just called it, Muriel.
When I was a teenager, my mother kept a plexiglass trash can in my 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 stealth fully 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 constant power struggle. 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.
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.
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 Hartsteins! 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.
My mother was much more than just a Cleaning Nazi.
I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. Muriel 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 25 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.