My husband and I have some strengths. Dealing with household maintenance is not one of them. Several weeks ago, when we noticed the odd moth flying out of the pantry, we probably both knew this was a sign of something. True to form, though, we both ignored it. Perhaps they would go away, or someone else would do something? Perhaps they they were flying in from outside, it being summer and all?
At, like, three weeks post-partum, I decide that maybe the moths are actually coming from within the pantry. In a fit of courage and competence, I pull out the drawers of the pantry and take a look.
What do I find? Just, in a bunch of foodstuffs, the nauseating sight of what I will refer to as “bugs” to spare you the disgusting details. I pinch a corner of some contaminated bags with a finger and a thumb and throw them in the garbage.
Even I know this will not do. The cupboards need to be emptied and cleaned and all the affected food tossed. In addition to six deep shelves of the pantry are also three cupboard shelves on the other side of the fridge that need attention. It’s a big job. BIG.
So, I do what any self-respecting, almost-forty-mother-of-three would do.
I call my mother.
Not just call. I practically hunted her down. When she wasn’t at home, I left a message there and contacted my sister. My mother was supposed to take care of my sister’s daughter the next day but understanding the desperate circumstances, my sister arranged alternate childcare for her daughter. Yes – we changed my mother’s schedule for her.
Did I consider other options? Fleetingly. I certainly did not want to do it. And I did not trust my husband or a hired cleaner to do it, because I believed that a missed crevice would mean the bugs would just come back. I wanted someone really careful. An expert.
I did ask my mother if she would please help, but this was kind of a formality. I arranged a babysitter for my two older boys, and told my mom that the job would take approximately two to three hours, with both of us working.
And possibly the job would have taken about that long, or maybe only an hour or two longer, had I actually helped. I preferred, instead, to watch my mother work from the couch and moan periodically at my lot.
In my defence, I was tired, and I did have to nurse the tiny baby. On the offence, however, I didn’t have to nurse for over eight hours, which is how long my mother worked to make my kitchen less attractive a homestead for the bugs that had perched there for God knows how long. The truth is, I’m not sure I’d have been less useless had the kid count stayed at two.
Predictably, my mother was annoyed at points. She said things like, “Don’t talk to me”.
She also discussed the situation with my kids, because of course when the babysitter returned the boys, my mom was still working. To my older son, she said matter-of-factly, “Your mom is bullying me”. She was more cheerful with the three year old. While teetering on a chair to reach the back of a high shelf, she sang out “Nat, you want to catch me when I fall, Nat?”
At one point, my mom pulled out some wild rice in a glass dish covered with a plastic lid. Although we could see no bugs in this container, my mother didn’t dump its contents straight into the garbage. Rather, to be thorough, my mother retrieved a small plastic produce bag from a rack in our cupboard, placed the bag in the kitchen sink, and carefully poured the wild rice into it. But when she lifted the bag to put it in the garbage, the rice gushed out of a huge hole in the bottom of the bag. “This useless place,” my mother seethed.
I lowered my head and didn’t make much noise, but couldn’t stop my body from shaking. Eyes on the floor, I could feel my mother staring at me, pissed, and eventually I was overcome, laughing with abandon, tears coming down, at her expense, at her trying so hard to help me, at the life that is mine and that I apparently cannot manage.
And then, instead of taking the rice and whipping it at my head, which was surely in order, my mother burst out laughing too. Which is all the testament you need about the sheer manipulative power that children lord over their parents for all time.
As the night waxed on, though, and my mom got visibly tired, my brazenness waned. The job turned out to be huge; I didn’t think it would be that bad. Or maybe I did, and that’s why I called for her? The last thing I said to my mother when she left late that night, and when I called her first thing the next morning, was “I’m sorry”.
How did my mom react to my pathetic requests for help, apart from giving it? Well, she did say that she didn’t want to come over for two weeks, that she needed a break from her weekly visits. But then she showed up at our door the following week as usual. And in response to my morning-after apology, she just chuckled and said, “It’s okay, dear”.
One of the perks of exclusively breastfeeding a newborn is reading more than I have in ages. A few days after The Big Clean, I read this excerpt from Kristin van Ogtrop’s book Just Let Me Lie Down (p. 138):
Mother load: The hard, enduring truth that you are selfish and your mother is not, and that you must pay her selflessness forward to your own children, who may never thank you and certainly will never love you as much as you love them.
Good God, I hope the last part of the sentence isn’t true; but up to the word “children”, the statement sent rounds of recognition ringing in my head.
Of course I ought to have cleaned my own cupboards and I won’t be making such ludricrous requests of my mother in the future (I hope, I hope). But I’m in the midst of a fairly high dose of selflessness myself these days, with three kids five and under, and I guess I was simply seduced by the luxury of having someone to fall back on. Not just any someone, but someone who wouldn’t say no. My mother, in other words. It’s hard to describe this kind of security, but its value, I suspect, is understood equally well by those of us who have it and those of us who don’t.