Years ago, when I lived in Mozambique I had a maid. Two maids in fact. Not at the same time, but two women who looked after me in different apartments. Two wonderful women who transformed my dirty laundry into neat pressed piles of t-shirts, calm rows of dresses lined up in the wardrobe, who made dirty dishes disappear and caused fresh fruit to materialise in the fridge.
I had a maid, and I never used the washing machine. Friends visited and asked me which washing cycle to use. My blank, slightly guilty look in response. The machine was as much of a mystery to me as to them.
Now my washing machine and I are on terms more than familiar. We greet each other a couple of times a day. I feed her powder and she spits out damp clean piles of jeans, t-shirts, underwear, baby onesies and cloth nappies. It never ends, the washing.
Even more years ago I visited a friend who had a very young baby. This was before having babies was something that my friends did. Her house was the everyday chaos you would expect for a first-time mum, but it was incomprehensible to me then. How could something so small and immobile make such a mess?It took me years to catch up, to understand the chaos. Clothes strewn. On sofas, on beds, on kitchen counter. I fled home to my neat, ordered quarters, silently vowing that my space would always be tidy.
Now? Toy’s litter the floor. Litter lives in the corners. Lunch debris falls from chubby hands to become afternoon snacks for the same chubby hands. Strange smells accost my senses as I move through doorways, and I never get around to destroying the source.
It never ends this housework. But why should it? The house keeps working, the family keeps moving. Breakfast dishes turn into late morning chores turn into dinner dishes. Even as one task is completed, another appears to take its place.
I try to rush through the tasks. If I run fast enough I can get to the end. I fly through the dinner preparation. I cut my finger. I pick up a crying baby. I pretend to be a dinosaur. I gobble my food. I whisk away evidence of our evening meal. I race around throwing toy cars into baskets, cushions back onto the sofa, to reset the space to adult-friendly mode. I breathe. I pull clothes from clothes airers. Return dishes to cupboards. I sit.
One day, to try something different. I decide not to rush.
I experiment with being here for the tidying up, with the idea that maybe it doesn’t have to be rushed. What if the tidying is a thing deserving of its own space in time? A space between the dinner and the bedtimes.
A slowed down space of wiping and washing.
Of filling dishwashers. Of picking up the baby and putting down the baby.
Of talking to the boy and playing with the boy and picking up the sweeping brush and sweeping away the day.
I sweep up the food dropped by 8-month-old hands, sweeping into my memory a tomato sauce-stained grin. I clean a protesting face, wipe snot from a nose and food from cheeks. I kiss a soft forehead. Less protest as I take a hand in my hand and wipe sticky fingers.
I place baby onto the floor and I wash the dishes. Simply. Calmly. I am here. I am washing dishes and that’s ok. I glance around at my baby, determinedly using his elbows to heft his body in the direction of a mini pink umbrella, hanging off the door. Almost there, his brother spies him. Rushes to protect his belongings.
The pain of injustice and effort without reward in my baby’s wail.
I clear the table. I clear away the remains of a family dinner. An invisible present demands to be unwrapped.
“It’s a toy sheep, Mommy”.
I unwrap unseen paper and string and place a bleating nothing beside the washing machine.
I clean the mat we use under the baby’s chair, clamped to the table. In his chair, he shakes and spills and rocks tea all over our world.
The magic of it all. Sweeping up the rice and the bread and the memories.
There is a me somewhere who yearns for a few minutes of sweeping. A me who begins her stories with “When my children were small…”
“When you were a baby….”
“When we lived in that house…”
When my children were small, the tidying up never seemed to end. So I stopped wishing it would vanish.
When you were a baby and crawling, I knew when you’d found some crumbs on the floor, because you always gave yourself away with a triumphant cackle.
When we lived in that house, I had some of the messiest, most enchanting days of my life.