Spring cleaning has its appeal, but I've never been a reliably energetic housekeeper. I can walk by messy piles of papers for weeks at a time, begrudging them their lava-like flow across my home, but I don't necessarily budge them. I swear I love my kitchen floor's tile partly because its hues match the color combo of dirt, crumbs and spills that hide out there. If it weren't for the occasional gatherings we host, I'm not sure all the bathrooms would ever get cleaned. Helen wouldn't be a bit surprised.
I was 5 or 6 when Helen started working for my family three times a week, dusting, vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms while my mother handled the heavy lifting of raising six children, pregnant with the next. My mother always says Helen saved her life. Helen used to say my mother saved hers, too.
It didn't take long for us to love Helen and her laugh, subtle and wheezy until it turned Southern and musical. Soon she and her sister, Catherine, attended our plays and graduations, and, eventually, our weddings. They gave us birthday cards. Our Christmas gift-giving lists expanded — parents, grandparents, Helen and Catherine.
Helen never had children, and once Catherine died, she lived alone in the D.C. house they bought in 1964, with neighbors and my mother checking in. Last year, at 86, she had a debilitating stroke, and suddenly her home was an abandoned nest (she moved into an assisted-living home). No matter that she has a nephew nearby and that neither my siblings nor I live within two hours, she had arranged it so that my family is in charge of her care and finances. So when we realized she could never return home, and with medical bills swallowing her savings, it was our job to ready her house for sale.
I never imagined that I would sift through Helen's life in a couple of weeks. It's a bizarre thing to do. The usual categories — throw away, keep, give away, recycle — didn't suffice. I spent a fair amount of time perplexed by the Las Vegas snow globes, smiling about the Marvin Gaye Let's Get It On album, wondering at the number of dresses bulging in her closets, and regretting that I hadn't painted her stained bedroom walls while she lived there.
I spent much more time in her house without her than with her. On the rare occasions I had visited, I was both embarrassed and touched by the number of framed photos of my family — our weddings, our children — that lined her living and dining rooms, mixed in with photos of relatives and neighbors. "You're my children," she would say. Invariably, she insisted we go upstairs to see the photos of us she kept in her bedroom and the sitting room, too. (Fifty of us total; I counted as I packed them away.) Perhaps my younger sisters, especially the three she had known as babies, deserved such adoration since they had been solicitous of Helen as we got older, calling, visiting, sending thoughtful gifts — but I hadn't. I just showed up briefly with my children in tow, and that made her day.
After working at her house, some evenings I drove out to her assisted-living home with a painting or a chair for her room. I wanted to talk about her house, but in her state that would only confuse and agitate her. I couldn't very well tell her how many trips to Goodwill I'd made that day with her belongings. I almost blurted out how great her house looked without her knickknacks and heavy drapes, and with the floors refinished, but of course I didn't. I felt guilty even thinking it.
It seemed a violation to pack up the photos, rip out the worn red carpet and move furniture around for a better flow, but I did it. Though Helen will never know, I was making up for lost time, and it felt surprisingly good to roll the vacuum around her house and wipe the windowsills. How many times had I seen her lug a vacuum around my parents' house and dust the bookcases? The timing was wrong, but there was something right about the housework I was doing.