Mother’s Day essay: The Clean Gene

Descriptions for a humorous Mother’s Day essay theme called My Crazy Family  fit like a glove. A rubber glove. The kind one dons when serious chores are to be performed. Quirky, wacky, the words describe life with my mom and her obsessive, passionate desire to clean.

Insanity due to family genetics, I plead guilty by association. My grandmother, my mother’s mom, was said to clean her house to extreme high standards. “You could eat off of the floor in any corner, of any room, in her house,” she said.

The faint odor of bleach evokes memories of my grandmother to this day. I suspect my unexplained fear of vacuum cleaners as a child, was caused by her noisy Hoover.

Raised in this vein, Mom paid me to dust the furniture and knickknacks in our home each week. Picture the inventory of dust-laden items contained in an old two-story Civil War-era home. Craftsmanship of that era dictated oodles of woodwork in homes and vast numbers of rooms. Our house had a parlor, library, dining room and a separate family room. A carved wooden banister led to five bedrooms upstairs. Bedrooms all had transom doors, the kind with a separate window over the top. She offered me a handsome fee; a whole quarter. I was thrilled.

Coins were stashed in an old metal bank at the back of my closet. My secret horde was spent only when my accumulated bounty equaled the price of a new Barbie Doll outfit. In those days. the least expensive ensemble cost a whopping $1.25.

Genetics aside, I’m not as obsessed as members of our family, who for sake of maintaining peace shall remain anonymous here. They’ve been known to not only clean the house, but paint the house. Not just the interior.  Invited to a party at their home, we drove right past. The exterior sported an unrecognizable hue, a renovation rendered necessary by the arrival of relatives from back East.

Why such concern with domestic upkeep? Do we perceive that our visitors peek into our libraries and run a finger across on the bookshelves when they pop by for a cup of coffee?

I believe it’s genetic, and my mother set the tone in our family. She saw every visit as an opportunity for a military-style, white-glove inspection.

A guest at a pre-wedding luncheon for my sister, Mom emerged from my bathroom and announced, to all seated at the dining room table: “Kathy, there is some black, gunky stuff in your sink.”

I’d spent the previous hours in preparation and my home sparkled. I scrubbed every surface and decked out the bathroom’s towel racks with fresh, color coordinated linens. My husband and boys were relegated to the laundry room sink, prior to the party. My face burned. “Thanks so much, Mom.”

”Arrive on time.” Mom’s other obsession. But, her internal clock ran fast. She was always early, a good hour early. Way before the designated time for the scheduled event, my door bell would ring. Each time, Mom seemed surprised when she was greeted at the door, by me, with the sweeper handle attached to my other hand.

Early arrival never meant she’d help out with last-minute hostess chores. A foot in the door, ahead of other guests, allowed ample time to inspect the premises.

What incites us to clean with such zeal when we expect company? The closer the kin, the deeper the level of “clean” is required.

The “us” to whom I refer are individuals of the female gender. Dads, brothers, husbands — in fact none of the males I know — seem to be infected with the super-clean bug.

Men do make attempts. Mom’s brand-new, champagne-yellow bath towels were rendered to cleaning rag status one afternoon. My brother decided to wash, and dry, his old car. His old Ford Galaxy, the one with old, oxidized turquoise blue metallic paint. He went to the linen closet and guess which towels were on the top of the stack? Yup.

Mom picked up those towels off the laundry room floor, like she was handling a specimen. I’m not sure they even made it to the rag bag.

I saw a cute cartoon that resonated with the frenzy of pre-visit clean up.

A father directs his two girls’ attention to their rooms. “We need to clean the house, and before your Mom gets home.”

The more precocious of the two girls cocked her head. “What level of clean are we talking about, Dad?” She listed out the possibilities; “Mom-Clean, or Hospital ICU clean?” The father shook his head to each query.

His expression took on a more serious composure and he spoke in a hushed tone. “Grandma-Clean.” His girls scurried off with brooms and rags.

I chuckle as I recall the comic frames. Yet as I typed this essay, I sat in a sweat-soaked t-shirt. I’d spent a good deal of the day, in Grandma-Clean mode. My little sister was due to arrive for a visit. I promised myself that I could get the house tidy before her arrival and still meet the deadline for submission of this essay.

— By Kathy Passage

Restaurant writer and Edmonds resident Kathy Passage also occasionally submits essays for My Edmonds News, MLTnews and Lynnwood Today.


  1. Dear Kathy,
    Your descriptions of cleaning struck a note with me. Now, for me that note is not in a major key, but more of a minor key. My spring house cleaning consists of re-arranging the dust when I have the time and energy to do it!
    At soon to be age 90 and with arthritis in my hands I have a discovered a deep sense of forgiveness for what I do, and also for what I can’t do, especially in the house cleaning department. I do work at it but it seems the chores move a lot faster than I do.
    I suffer from my reprobate behavior because I once was a house cleaner extraordinaire when I was young with two small children, a large dog and a husband that contributed to my never ending chores without ever lifting a finger.
    I also started an importing business at the time just in case I had a few unspoken for hours.
    A dear friend a few days ago reminded me that since I am a writer, that is my first order of commitment, not dust!
    Sometimes it takes a friend to soothe the furrowed brow of a non-conformer such as myself.
    Thank goodness for friends and for your very astute observations on the life of pails, rags, mops and dust cloths
    in the lives of every woman that lives or has ever lived!
    Thank you Kathy

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