On Keeping a Clean Home

Almost two years ago, upon, once again, moving back to New York, I subleased a studio apartment on Essex Street from a friend who was leaving town. When she gave me a brief rundown of things-to-know about the apartment, she told me that every two weeks, a cleaner came to the apartment.

The cleaner has a key, my friend said. There’s no phone number for her, but there is a phone number for her nephew, Angel. She does not speak English, but Angel does. Just leave $20 on the table every other Tuesday morning.

I grew up in a very clean house. It wasn’t that my mother was cleaning constantly—she worked a lot; we always had a full-time housekeeper. I knew little of gathering dust, and the kind of dirtiness that accumulates when a room is simply left to sit. I thought bathrooms just stayed clean, as long as they were not actively made dirty. On top of that, my father was vigilant about us not leaving anything lying around. Items left, say, sitting on the kitchen table, were left at the bottom of the stairs to be taken en route to our bedroom. And sometimes, if school bags were left downstairs, they were throw out onto the lawn. We learned quickly.

Our chores were limited to the dinnertime sphere (cooking, tidying up, stacking and unstacking the dishwasher), and whatever happened on the weekends when our housekeeper would not be there. My parents would often host large Shabbos dinners, and I helped a lot with setting and clearing, cooking and preparing, and tidying up. I loved setting up the candles, karate-chopping the couch cushions just so, and making sure the wooden venetians were all hanging level with each other. But none of that is housework.

Back to Essex Street. I did not think too much about the lady who was schlepping to my house every other week, to clean for two hours, for $20, arranged by her nephew, Angel. But I’d leave the money on the table, and would delight in returning to a sparkling apartment. The tiny bathroom would be spotless, the wooden floors swept and mopped, the bed linen changed. If I was running low on a cleaning product, she was would leave the empty bottle on the kitchen table, so I’d know what to replace. I came home one Tuesday evening, and for a moment, I thought I’d been robbed. The apartment was not how I’d left it. The second I realized the cleaner had come—it was Tuesday, afterall—I also realized I’d forgotten to leave her the money.

In every other apartment I’d lived in, the cleaning has had its own methodology. In some apartments, there was no cleaning, beyond sweeping or tidying up the kitchen. Laundry happened at the laundromat; there was no pre-wash or soaking or gentle cycle. An item either got dry cleaned, not cleaned, or thrown in with everything else, and often ruined, in the washer and dryer at the laundromat. In Jerusalem, a broom-sized squeegee would be used, with a cloth soaked in water and bleach. I’m sure I was doing it wrong. More often than not, I have made housework up. When I needed to defrost my freezer, I wrote into Jolie Kerr’s column. Now I know how to defrost a freezer, and clean a fridge quite well. I learned how to fold a fitted sheet by watching a video on YouTube. I have never cleaned an oven.

My grandmother, (I have one—this is my father’s mother) has never worked. She is, however, the very picture of a domestic goddess. The mythology surrounding her goes for days. Never was there a more perfect and capable homemaker. Before they could afford home help, she would polish the floors, on her hands and knees, daily. Dinner was on the table, like clockwork, every night. The silver was always polished. This is what her linen closet looked like: matching sets of linen, each tied with a ribbon. When I first learned of the ribbon-tied linen sets, I breathlessly told my mother. She responded with an eye roll: “Again with the fucking linen sets tied with ribbon.” Clearly, she already knew.

When I realized I had forgotten to leave $20 on the table, I came up with a plan. Obviously, two Tuesdays from now, I would leave $40 on the table, with a really apologetic note. I don’t speak Spanish, so I wrote it using Google translate. I admired my penmanship en Espagnol as I left my apartment for work on the morning of two Tuesdays later. That evening, I came home to discover that the cleaner had not come. My note and the 2 bills sat on the glass-topped kitchen table, which was still marked with streaks and fingerprints. I would have to call Angel.

Although my mother was not solely responsible for keeping our house, housework was still very much womens’ work in our family. My sisters and I always helped more than my brothers. My father would frequently not know where to find certain kitchen utensils. The kitchen was my mother’s domain. She cooked often, and I adored watching and helping. During our big Shabbos dinners, it was the girls who got up and cleared, or served the next course. Nobody had to tell us to. Nobody ever told the boys not to—it just happened. But how did it just happen?

In contrast to my father’s mother—she of the ribbon-tied linen sets—my mother’s parents both worked full-time, together at a market. When she was still in school, my mother would come home to an empty house and make Shabbos dinner for the family, because her parents couldn’t close early on Friday. Her own father had been trained as a tailor; he held the title of Master Tailor, back in Poland, when he was only 15. So, he sewed and mended. No men in my house ever sewed. I’m curious to know about the division of labour in the marriages of my six siblings. I’m only just figuring out mine. When I think about what I do around the house, and what my husband does, I can’t figure out how gendered it is. He’s very tidy. We both cook. He takes out the garbage. I make the bed. I sweep, he mops. We each have our own laundry bag. I always put the the bed linen, dishtowels, placemats, and napkins in my laundry bag when I drop it off at the laundromat. Nobody told me to do that. I just do it.

When I called Angel, I explained the situation to him. He cut me off, sounding frustrated, and asked, “Do you want her to keep coming, or do you want her to stop coming?”

“Keep coming!” I said. “I want her to keep coming!”

The following Tuesday, I came home to the money gone, and a clean apartment. I never learned her name, and I soon moved out. Another friend lives in that apartment now.

Our current apartment is large, and very old. The front rooms, overlooking noisy and dusty Nostrand Avenue, get dirty very quickly. We barely use that room, and if I sweep once a week, I can still rustle up a nice little anthill of worryingly black dust. My husband and I talked about hiring someone to come clean, only every other week or so. My sister offered the number of a service that sends cleaning ladies to your house. You pay them $10 an hour. My husband was very uncomfortable with that. I wasn’t sure how I felt. I talked to my friend Jude about it, over dinner one night.

“How much do you think you make?” she asked. She had a point—I had a shitty job and was, after taxes, probably not getting that much more, per hour. I thought about how I have health insurance, and a husband who works, and no children, and parents who can help us out, if necessary.

We ended up hiring a very expensive, environmentally friendly cleaning service to come just once a month. After a few months, I re-calculated; I could get someone to come once every week, or once every other week, and it would still add up to less. My sister gave me another phone number of cleaner she employed for a short time. I called Glendy. She quoted me $60 for 3 hours. She was, after all, taking the train from Jamaica, Queens. When she saw our apartment—clean, no kids—she told us that $50 was fine. Fifty dollars feels okay for me, too, right now. She’s only come three times so far, and between her schedule and ours, it’s only ended up being once every 3 or 4 weeks. And in between her visits, I try to clean more. I think about how when I get a better job, I’ll pay her more.

My husband’s parents both worked-time, too. There’s a story, though, involving a fight he had with his mother. They were in the kitchen. The story ends with her throwing a Cuisinart at his head. It reminds me of a story in my family: My grandmother, the domestic goddess, was once so enraged with my teenaged father that she chased him around the kitchen with a knife. These stories say something, not about violence or corporal punishment, but about whom the kitchen belongs to. I don’t know whom my kitchen belongs to. I arrange the pots one way and my husband rearranges them his way. I resent that he doesn’t share my preference (as much nesting as possible, handles all facing a uniform direction), but I like that he has a preference (pots and their corresponding lids as accessible as possible).

When we got married, my mother gave me the set of silver Shabbos candlesticks she got from her own mother-in-law when she got married. They are very late-’70s: quite minimal and elegant. My three sisters all got brand new candlesticks when they got married, and I love that I ended up with my mother’s old ones (she retired them for multi-branched candelabras once she had kids; she lights a candle for each of us, as is my family’s tradition). They need to be cleaned often. And they are mine, so I clean them. Cleaning silver is a pain in the ass.

Recently, my husband’s stepmother offered me her own grandmother’s set of silverware. Actual silverware: forks, knives and spoons made of silver. It had all been polished earlier that day, by her own housekeeper. I thought of our apartment and its limited storage. The silverware was all zipped up into soft, silver storage bags, ready to come back to New York with us. When would I even use it? We already had perfectly adequate cutlery. My husband was unsentimental; the choice was mine. What a beautiful thing to have, I thought. “I do want it,” I told her, “but just not now.” I tried to read her expression and whether, at my vague acceptance of her offer, there was some relief in finally having offloaded some burden.


Esther C. Werdiger writes, draws, podcasts, and lives in New York. You can read her “League of Ordinary Ladies” here.

Photo: Dan Brady



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