Column

No Place Like Home

I give my house a thorough cleaning when I host guests, have parties, and when I find something vile lurking within a cabinet. Otherwise, I just do maintenance cleaning except for once a year when my front steps transmute from black to green overnight. When I can see that spring is literally in the air, I know it’s that time of year to rid our home of all signs of human life. It’s during this cleaning mania when I make discoveries that reveal that our house is being held together with Scotch tape. This is because three people who do not pay for the house live inside it.

Spring cleaning takes me places within my home that I otherwise rarely visit. It can be fun to explore neglected spaces such as the desk in the study where old letters have been stashed, but it can also lead to evidence of a crime. Take, for example, our wedding album. Nobody ever looks at wedding albums, so this should be safe territory. Not so. While cleaning a shelf in the living room, I picked up a silver-framed photo album that had been a gift.  At first touch the frame flew off the cover and hit the floor, apparently now divorced from the album. I knew the frame hadn’t just come apart on its own; somebody had picked it off like a scab.

Now, I may have been an odd child, but I wasn’t destructive. When I got bored I named the trees in my backyard or pretended to be a squirrel. I also talked to myself more than a little, but I never dismantled my mother’s things. Clearly, my kids need to get outside more often so they can create their own scabs to occupy their time.

Like most things in my house, the album would be sloppily repaired with a glue that’s stronger than my state of resignation but weaker than my kids’ destructive bent. But not everything can be fixed with glue. My mom is fond of reminding me that things could always be worse. When I went to clean the kitchen table, I saw that yes, things could. On that unsuspecting tabletop I discovered a tiny tribute to me. After chipping at dots of nail polish fused to the wood, I started to give the table a sponge bath of Murphy’s soap when I felt an irregularity on the surface. What I had touched was an indentation in the table about the size of a quarter; upon closer examination I could see it was an imprint of a word: MOM. Or maybe it was WOW. I chose the former for the sake of the child at whose seat the transgression was found.

When the culprit returned from school, I asked her why MOM was filed into our table, staining it like Lady MacBeth’s damn’d spot. Her answer was succinct and telling: “I don’t know.” This is probably true. After all, why did I name the trees in the backyard? Such goes the developing prefrontal cortex.

It’s times like these when I remind myself that I love people, not things. But even though I don’t care to have more than we need, I do like to take care of what we have. For instance, I like using the dishwasher, which I can’t do when it’s broken because someone used the door as a step stool. The same thing goes for the bathroom sink, which is not the proper place to dispose of hermit crab sand, and the ceiling fans, which are not carnival rides for stuffed animals. The only place where I have dominion over my belongings is my car because the kids are restrained while in it. Yet even there, the occasional melted Jolly Rancher must be chiseled from a seatbelt so that it can be fastened.

I am not a permissive MOM. I have standards and restrictions, and the above infractions don’t go without consequences. Thus my lack of comprehension when I find that a vent cover is deliberately coated in purple nail polish (note this is the second mention of ruination by nail polish). This behavior must surely have deep roots buried somewhere within the kids’ genetic codes. Certainly a force greater than my rules must drive them to maim and destroy like programmed assassins.

Next I opened a dresser to switch out my daughter’s clothes for the new season. The dresser was my husband’s when he was little, which is why I love it. “See,” I imagined saying, “this is how you take care of things so they last.” It’s not in perfect shape, but my husband is fifty, and the dresser has held up almost as well as he has.

I pulled out the sweaters and packed them away for the next child, ready to replace them with t-shirts and shorts. But once the drawer was empty I noticed a dark spot inside it. There, in black marker, written in the unsure handwriting of a novice scribe, was a single word: HELL. It was just sitting there in the dresser, bold and shameless. Even in its childish lettering, I recognized the penmanship of the hidden profanity. And it did not belong to the kids.

It appears my girls come by their vandalism naturally, having received some deep-seated annihilative tendencies from their dad. I looked at the crude scrawling and pictured my husband’s juvenile satisfaction after writing the adult word in his dresser and hiding it for decades. I wondered if his MOM, now deceased, had ever seen it.

And then I went downstairs and took a picture of the table, because I do love my people much more than our things.

By Tara Bailey