The Clean Gene

You can run, but you can’t hide from at least one springtime urge

I grew up far away, in a Pennsylvania town with three seasons: snow, mosquitoes, and about two weeks of delirium in between. One week you’d be using a kitchen spatula to scrape dirty ice off your windshield, amazed people actually could survive in a place that had nine months of winter, and the next there’d be sunshine and green buds and the smell of lilacs.

The joy made us suspicious, especially my mother. Spring would arrive, and she’d throw open the drapes, step into the living room with her cigarette and her cup of black coffee, and suddenly see every slush stain we’d tracked in on her wall-to-wall carpet during the past nine months. Then she’d start asking ominously if we could “come in here for a minute.”

In other words, spring is when I learned to clean.

Oh, the scouring, the vacuuming, the beating of rugs, and flapping of laundry. The Windex and detergent and vinegar. Even if you hid, the sheer furor would find you. It didn’t help that my mother’s mother had been a cleaning lady by profession. Small and wiry, she’d land on the doorstep within hours of the first thaw like a beady-eyed little bird, cocking her head and casting about with her Catholic radar for, as she liked to call it, “filth and corruption.”

You could compare her arrival to that of the first robin of spring, if robins arrived with a scrub bucket under one wing and an industrial-size jug of ammonia under the other. Sometimes she’d mutter as she cleaned, throwing baking soda around and cursing the dirt in Italian.

So passed the springs of my childhood, and I look back on them fondly, for they were part of what propelled me to Southern California, where I fled immediately after the age of majority. I was young, and to me California represented all that was different and thrilling. Plus, it was said that California had no winter. This meant no spring, and—look, Ma!—no spring cleaning. I could get a fresh start that didn’t involve using a scouring pad to ritually assault my surroundings. I would become a new woman. A woman utterly unlike my mother, and her mother before her. A woman, perhaps, who might even welcome a little “filth and corruption.”

Of course, as my mother and her mother before her could have told me, even in California there comes a season of reckoning.

It’s hard to pinpoint the year. Maybe it was during my first pregnancy, when a sunny March morning found me scrubbing the kitchen linoleum on my hands and knees. Maybe it was later, during a spring break in a vacation rental on Balboa Island, when a dirty diaper left under a bed by the previous tenant sent me into a mattress-airing, sanitary-cycle-laundering, full-on cleaning spree.

But like so many immigrants to this Golden State of eternal springtime, I eventually got a bulletin from the home front: Run as far as you like, but your genes are your genes.

Just as some of us arise one day with an inexplicable urge to get back into religion, or marry a man like Dad, or cook up the St. Patrick’s Day pot of corned beef and cabbage we detested as children, I discovered that the vernal equinox compelled me to clean house. Not because some gloom had lifted. Not because the usual mess was too messy. Not because California made me a tidier person. But because it felt like the thing to do when the calendar page turned.

So here we are at the end of winter, such as it is in Orange County. And right on schedule, my house is a holy mess—the piles of clothes, the moldering papers, the filth, the corruption. It has been more than 30 years since I left home, decades since my grandmother’s passing, years since I lost my dear mother, and still I feel that awakening so joyful to many Californians: Mosquitoes aside, home—wherever we’re from—will always be reborn within us.

How could I have forgotten? What was I thinking? What’s that stain on the carpet? Where’s my Windex?

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.

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