As a kid, I remember being baffled by the way my grandparents scurried about their Manhattan apartment before the cleaning lady showed up.
As a young adult, I couldn’t believe how stressed my mother became while getting ready for her cleaner.
When I snagged a grown-up job a dozen years ago with a modest salary big enough to make me feel rich, I vowed I would treat myself to two things: I would have regular massage to work out my runner-tight muscle kinks, and I would pay someone to clean my house.
Turns out, massage is covered by my health insurance. And while I look forward to every hour on the table because my masseur is someone I love to talk to, when he’s digging into my ouchier bits, I’ll yell and curse at him. At times, I’ve threatened to smash into his face one of the lovely heated rocks he lays on me.
He says, “Go ahead. You can curse at me,” and doesn’t ease up. I always think: Why did I want this? Then I remember. It helps me. He helps me.
So it is with having my house cleaned. I love the idea of it, and the reality is often a bit uncomfortable.
While I’m not sensitive to judgments about my lack of domesticity and my friends know to check to see if they need to wash glasses before they use them, I make sure I’m never home meet the people who scour trail-running dirt out of my bathtub or dust around many bottles of failed beauty product purchases.
It’s not that there’s anything embarrassing that wouldn’t withstand nosy prying. It just makes me uncomfortable to be so exposed; I leave around the detritus of my life – personal cards, official mail, the cashmere sweater from an old boyfriend I sometimes take out because I love the way it still smells.
There’s some guilt. While I have friends who claim they get pleasure from cleaning, I don’t and suspect the workers who come to my house don’t love it either. It’s a luxury and a privilege not to have to scrub a toilet. Making enough money – and for me, the threshold of enoughness is shockingly low – means you get to prioritize your time and contract out chores you hate.
While I don’t think of myself as someone who has secrets (obviously, I mine my personal life for copy), still, it’s odd to think about what strangers see when they sift through my stuff. My many marathon finisher medals hang colorfully like a valance on the curtain rod across the front window. Do the cleaners get the visual pun? Do they realize the “Shrine to Me” bookcase that holds my favorite race trophies is meant ironically?
There’s dog hair on every surface, and I suspect the originator of all that fur follows the cleaners around as they work. I worry about how they treat her. Teetering piles of books just keep getting higher. On my beside table I keep a note that reads, “Here you go, Rach. Don’t go doin’ nuthin’ crazy.” It’s from my editor, when he sent me back the page proof for my novel. He meant I shouldn’t try to rewrite it once it had been set into type. I keep it because it reminds me of the pleasure of working on that book, but I wonder how it reads to a stranger.
Even though I tell myself the people who clean my house are professionals, that they wouldn’t pry, that belief died hard when I met a woman who’d worked as a house cleaner and snooped her way into a big book contract to write about her experiences.
And so, I bustle around the night before the cleaners come, washing dishes, putting away books and magazines, trying to gather Helen’s mound of toys onto the dog bed she rarely uses and ask myself if it’s worth it, if this is the best use of the chunk of money I pay twice a month.
Things have gotten broken. Often, small items of low actual worth but high sentimental value that are not covered by insurance. Furniture has been chipped and dinged. Objects get moved and rearranged according to logic that eludes me. Spots are not as clean as I would like and I feel a flicker of annoyance.
I get over that when I realize anything they do is far better than what my own pathetic efforts would accomplish. And, I’m not the one doing the work.
Mostly, though, having professionals vacuum up my crud is a nice reminder that we all get to define what having enough feels like. For me, it’s not driving a fancy car or flashing expensive bling. It’s getting massages (even when they hurt) and paying people to clean my house. A sparkling sink and freshly made bed means I’ve become successful enough to treat myself to things I consider luxuries. I never forget to feel grateful for that.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.