How I Learned to Clean – Kveller
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How I Learned to Clean

When I was growing up, any item of mine not put away in its place was, more likely than not, tossed out the window by my mother. At the time, my parents and I were living within an 18-square-meter room (“A very good size by USSR standards,” my father assures me. “Usually it was 4 meters per person.”) in a 1970s Soviet communal apartment (i.e. a single family dwelling crammed with as many people as the government felt like cramming there, with a shared bathroom and kitchen). There wasn’t exactly a lot of space for clutter.

As a result, this was how I learned to clean. Something not in its proper place? Out it goes.

My husband, on the other hand, likes his stuff. He likes his stuff a lot. His love for his stuff extends to a transitive love for all stuff, especially our kids’ stuff.

I think I’m being perfectly reasonable when I give my 8- and 5-year-olds, who share a room, as much time as they want to get it in order. However, if they tell me that they are done cleaning, and I come in to check and decree that they are not, in fact, done, anything out of place goes in the trash.

My husband finds this personally excruciating. So, in order to fend off my attempts at instilling some order into a room where I literally need to step over block cities, test-tubes filled with viscous goo of indeterminate origin, piles of unmatched (why are they always unmatched? Where does the other one go?) socks, and inter-species tea parties of Barbies and Teddy Bears, just to tuck my kids in at night, he has bought them bins and boxes and shelves galore. Anything to keep me from going on a rampage.

Well, heading into Passover 2012, I went on a rampage, nonetheless.

See, here’s the thing: All the bins and boxes and shelves in the world are not in any way helpful, IF SMALL CHILDREN DO NOT ACTUALLY PUT THEIR THINGS AWAY IN THEM.

If anything, they make the room more cluttered, since they just become more things to leave on the floor for me to trip over, step, and stub my toes on.

In getting ready for this Passover, I offered my kids their usual proviso: They could clean their room with no supervision or direction from me. However, as soon as they said they were done, it was my turn to go to town.

And go to town I did.

Heaps of broken crayons and dried up markers and empty paint sets, mountains of jigsaw puzzles with long-lost pieces, stacks of crumpled art projects and museum pamphlets and science experiments and shiny candy wrappers and outgrown bedroom slippers and homeless Legos and mummified snacks that should never have been there in the first place – all that and more went into five garbage bags stretched to maximum capacity, then out to the curb.

While my kids (and husband) stood by, dumbfounded.

I expected tears (from all of them). But, I think they were too shocked to even cry.

I, meanwhile, was literally in a fugue state. I was grabbing and flinging and stuffing like a woman possessed. And, all the while, I kept lecturing, “Listen, people. It’s Passover, right? What’s the moral of Passover? The moral of Passover is when you’re told to get up and go, you get up and GO. You don’t start digging through your junk. You take what’s most important, and you leave everything else behind. That’s impossible to do if you live in this kind of mess. How are you ever going to find what you need? If the Israelites didn’t even have time to wait for their bread to rise, trust me, they did not have time to go searching for socks that matched or ponder which book series to pack, Harry Potter or Narnia!”

And that’s when it hit me that perhaps my tirade wasn’t only about a messy bedroom–though, trust, me, that was indeed a substantial part of it. That, just perhaps, it was also about my on-going, ridiculous, irrational, yet nonetheless persistent fear that, someday soon, it may be time to flee. And my kids won’t be prepared.

I know it’s totally absurd, but, every time we have to run for the subway, and I tell my sons and daughter, “Hurry,” and even the 5-year-old grabs my hand and hustles up the stairs double-time, not asking questions about why, not dawdling, not fussing, while the older two momentarily stop their sniping and one-upsmanship and do exactly as I say, I honestly feel a sense of relief that goes beyond being grateful we didn’t miss our train. I genuinely think, “Good. If this were a real emergency, they’d have made it through.”

And if the above doesn’t go off like clockwork, I sincerely panic and wonder, “What would have happened if this were a real emergency?”

Apparently…I have issues. Year-round ones. Which Passover happens to bring out in particular.

I realize that we live in America. Where, I fervently believe, even the most right-wing fundamentalist extremists and/or the most left-wing Communist sympathizers will never accumulate enough political or social power to rouse my family from our beds in the middle of the night and issue the historically familiar edict, “Gather up your things and get thee out.”

But, just in case it ever does happen, I’m ready to flee at a moment’s notice at the first sound of galloping Cossacks approaching. (My husband, however, has informed me that while I am free to flee on ahead, he’ll stay with his stuff, thank you very much.)

And, just in case it ever does happen, I need to imagine my kids will be ready to come with me. (We’ll work on their father later.)

A tidy room makes a nice start.

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