When Cleaning Is the Only Option

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I used to be afraid of cleaning toilets. As a teenager, it was my job to clean the upstairs bathroom while my two younger brothers were outside helping our father mow the lawn, pull weed and trim the bushes. My parents were Portuguese immigrants whose core belief system was rooted in a culture with patriarchal roles and traditional Christian values. I couldn’t take out the trash any more than my brothers could do the dishes.

Every Saturday morning, my mother would hand me a bottle of Clorox bleach and a rag she had made from one of my father’s old work shirts. I’d scrub the double vanity just fine, checking my teeth in the mirror as I wiped it clean. But the toilet disgusted me. There were always splatters of urine underneath the rim, pieces of hair stuck in hard-to-get places between the tank and the bowl. With yellow rubber gloves on up to my elbows, I’d hold my breath and turn my head away from the smell, dunking a brush around the bowl.

But when my father died in a car accident in 2007, cleaning became much more than our family’s Saturday morning routine. My father had been the sole breadwinner of our family for nearly two decades. He didn’t have life insurance, and the flooring business he’d built quickly crumbled without someone to do the labor. Our family was left with nothing. With only a high school diploma, my mother believed herself capable of only one skill: cleaning. Perhaps in cleaning the dirt off mirrors and floors she could wash away her grief, too.

My mother was hired to clean a day care center a few blocks from Harvard Square. Each night at 6 o’clock, she’d load the trunk of her car with those same Clorox bottles she gave me, rags made from my father’s old T-shirts she now cried into. She worked her way through the day care at night, classroom after classroom, cubby after cubby, miniature toilet after miniature toilet, vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing. I wanted my grief to stay on my face for the world to see. I had no desire to bleach myself clean. So, when my mother asked me and my two brothers to help her with this new job, at first I said no.

“You don’t know the value of a dollar yet,” my mother would say when I’d ask her to abandon the cleaning job for one with a little more dignity. At the time, I was working part-time at our local drugstore while commuting to college full-time. Each day when I came home and saw my mother’s sweat bubbling at the top of her forehead from her own household chores, a dish towel in one hand and a broom in the other, I promised myself a different life, one that wouldn’t involve my children being my greatest accomplishment.

I eventually gave in and helped my mother clean the day care on my days off. But so much of that life felt like a regression. I studied the likes of Jane Austen and Immanuel Kant by day, and by night, I was vacuuming road map rugs, ducking under four-foot castles and scrubbing paint-blotched sinks.

By then cleaning had become a gender-neutral family project. My youngest brother refilled the steel paper towel dispensers in every room of the center. I’d hear the whip of a trash bag opening and watch my other brother trudge by, dragging two large black bags behind him. In the beginning, he was too small to lift the heavy bags over his shoulders, but over time, his muscles rippled underneath his shirt as he heaved all the trash bags to the dumpster in one trip.

My mother once told me, “I was born cleaning toilets. I’m going to die cleaning toilets.” This was on a car ride home after cleaning the day care; I had had a small confrontation with one of the teachers who had stayed late. My mother and I recounted our usual argument — I begged her to quit, and she told me I was being privileged.

I’ve come back to this moment several times throughout my life, but none so much as now. My husband and I are fortunate to be able to work from home during quarantine, our salaries intact. We clean for a sense of security — peace of mind. But my mother does not have that luxury. She cleans for financial security. Now, that statement about cleaning toilets until she dies has a new meaning, one all too literal.

My mother is currently working as a cleaner at a self-storage facility, where there is usually only a maintenance man, and an electrical supply company, where she sometimes comes into contact with several people at the warehouse.

Her job is perhaps less dangerous than if she were cleaning a hospital or nursing home, but with an uncle at home undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, I worry that the contact she has in her job is putting not only her own life at risk, but the lives of those within her household as well.

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    Updated June 2, 2020

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I worry for her as I worry for all the other essential workers. I see my mother’s face in the eyes of friends who are doctors and nurses, a red indentation over the ridge of their noses after hours of wearing an N95 mask. I see my mother’s eyes in the eyes of my students who are now behind a Plexiglass partition instead of in my classroom, beeping my groceries along and handing me my receipt with trembling fingers. I worry for anyone who has been deemed essential, but who has always been thought of as less than.

My mother used to cry for my late father into her overused rags, the skin of her hands dry and cracked with bleach. Today she cries for different reasons. I do, too. For many years, I tried to ignore my father’s death, believing our lives could carry on in the same ways they always had. Now, I know differently. Just as his death changed everything for my family, Covid-19 has disrupted every facet of life in every corner of the world and there is no going back. Our goal is much the same as my mother’s was 13 years ago: To survive.

Sarah Chaves is a writer who lives in Boston and São Jorge, Azores. Follow her on Instagram @sarita_chaves.