I push forward. I pull back. Push forward. Pull back. Forward. Back. My hand grips the handle of my Shark “ultra-light upright,” walks it through my apartment. White noise constant, silencing my grief-stricken brain. She’s not dead. She’s not dead. I vacuum with a vengeance.
A long sweep down my hallway, I wing into the living room, cut a corner here, round a chair leg there. Damn! Clipped the buffet. No matter. Long cord, slack and trailing behind me, I move on.
I learned to clean from my mother. Not that she actually taught me to vacuum this way or that, any more than she taught me to tidy up and wipe down my bureau drawers each spring, or how to properly fold a fitted sheet; I learned from watching, absorbing, without ever knowing I was learning.
My mother with a kerchief tied up around her hair, 40’s style, ankle socks and wedges on her feet, a scrim of perspiration blooming above her upper lip, working the Hoover. Me, ten, home from school on a Friday when she did the thorough cleaning of our Brooklyn walkup.
He’d been in the lobby, an older boy from the building, sitting on one of the marble benches with a radiator under. “Want to read the funnies?” he said to me. I sat. He spread the newspaper across our laps. I felt his hand on my thigh. Don’t talk to strange men. They’ll take you away and you’ll never see me again, my mother had warned time and again. But this wasn’t a strange man. Still it felt wrong. I shifted away. He shifted, squeezed my thigh. A fear rang in me. I jumped up and somehow felt compelled to say, “I’m going upstairs.”
Back in 3C I told my mother. She did not phone my father on our newly installed party line to see what she should do. Nor did she wait for him to address the matter when he got home from work. She flung aside the Hoover as if to swing open a door, pulled off her kerchief, tossed it on a chair and took my hand. “We’re going to tell his mother.” Afraid, embarrassed, I begged off. “I’ll be with you,” she said. “Come, let’s go.”
She marched me down the stairs, across the lobby to the other side of the building and up to his apartment. His mother answered the door. “Tell Mrs. Berg what you just told me,” my mother said. I told her. Mrs. Berg called out to her son. He came to the door. Again I repeated my story. “Is that right?” she said to him. Her eyes were knives. A big hulking boy, he suddenly looked very small. “I’ll take care of this,” Mrs. Berg said.
Reserved in her manner, my mother kept her opinions to herself and deferred to my father rather than oppose him. But when it came to my safety and well-being, she was a lioness protecting her cub. Mother of Mothers, she was a wonder.
Years later I gave birth to my third child. No sooner had I come home from the maternity ward, introduced my infant daughter to her two siblings and my mother (there to welcome us) I started unpacking. Not my nightie and robe from the hospital, but the cartons that filled every room in the new home we’d just moved into.
“Why are you lifting?!!! You just had a baby!! You’ll hurt yourself!” she said. She wasted not a moment and marched next door to hijack my neighbor’s cleaning woman. “This is Sophie,” she said to me upon returning, arms linked like they were old friends. “Just tell her where everything goes.”
My mother had a weekly girl to do her cleaning then—“She’s a woman, Mom, not a girl!”—but she still straightened up and lightly dusted, just before the girl/woman arrived, lest she think my mother was anything less than a balabusteh (Yiddish for capable homemaker).
What was she thinking then, my mother, when she had someone in to do the housekeeping for her, and she still kept on with it? Maybe her hands were doing the thinking for her, making order, setting a thing to right, that brought her to her sweepers and dust rags.
As if sewn onto my body, her hands are my hands. Dazed with the loss of her, I pop out the floor nozzle. I plug the upholstery tool into the slot. The comforting click.
I press and release the suction tool attachment into the poly-wrapped down filling of the sofa cushions. Press, release, press, release. The breathy, sucking sound of it, my mother’s once-beating heart. I set the cushions aside, vacuum the front, back, and sofa platform. But I’m not done yet. Not done till I burrow the flat, angled add-on into the dark nether regions of the upholstered casing. Lint and micro-schmutz be gone! Pillows puffed to perfection, I settle them up against the sofa back.
I step away and admire my work, as if I had kiln-dried the wood and constructed its frame, batted and nailed the fabric to it and sewn the velvet that cover its cushions, when all I did was vacuum.
My mother would understand.
Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches creative writing and memoir at Queensborough Community College, Continuing Ed, Queens, New York. Her stories and essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast and Art Times.