This boy loves to clean—he does not love to tidy up or to do basic maintenance cleaning, but he loves a big messy project. He’s looking for the kind of project that allows him to eradicate massive quantities of yuck. I understand. I was the same as a child. And I have seen the future, for all of us: there are not enough cleaners and menders and fixers and repairers in the world, not enough for all the breakage and entropy crumbling all things around the edges. His heart is true. Though it would be significantly less work if I did the cleaning myself, I find him a project.
“Sweep floor,” reads the list of chores for Saturday, written in red magic marker on a sheet of paper at the table. Brendan has Madeleine read him the items, and his eyes light up. “Can I mop the floor, Mama?” What’s a mom to say? The floor is disgusting. It needs to be mopped.
“We have to start from the top and go down to the floor, if you want to do that. Otherwise we make more work for ourselves, later. Will you help me with the other parts, first?” As I make sure he is serious, he has already begun to move the dining chairs to the living room, to haul out the broom and dustpan, to clean the sticky spots on the dining table.
“Bring me the cleaning cloths from the bathroom, my putty knife, too.” I instruct. I do the first sweep. I am thinking, the floor is extra dusty because the dryer is located next to the refrigerator, and the tubing to the dryer vent disconnected itself weeks ago, so bits of dusty lint adhered themselves to the wall behind the frig, the items above the laundry area. I can’t start this project, I think, recalling the last time I replaced the dryer vent tubing, how it fell off immediately three times in a row before I got it right. I don’t mind the warmth and damp air blowing in, but it drives Scott crazy. I take a few of those cleaning wipes from the container and lay them over the unidentifiable stains to soften them.
And Brendan moves more of the furniture out of the kitchen, while I dust the walls and the refrigerator free of the lint. I will fix it. It needs to be done. When the dusting is progressed as far as I can go, I wiggle the dryer free from the wall, an inch on the left, an inch on the right, until it is free from its space entirely.
“Cool!” he shouts, immediately placing himself in the dusty square of floor space. “This is like a house, except small,” he exclaims. “Unless you are a mouse, of course, and then it is big.”
“Hmmm. Proportion—yes, that’s a good way to look at things.” I know what is coming. It’s okay to set myself up, sometimes.
“What’s pro-por-shun?” he says, my good straight man.
“Proportion means that what is small to you is what’s big to a mouse, just like you said.”
“Oh,” he says brightly, fishing behind the refrigerator with the whisk broom for more yucky stuff. He picks up the silvery tube and looks inside. “Cool! What does this do?”
“See if you can tell me where it attaches to the dryer.” This is so much better than a thousand “educational” plastic Legos. “Can you find me the duct tape?”
“What’s this silver thing called, Mama?”
“It’s a duct. And the stuff we use to seal it to the dryer is called duct tape.” I set myself up again, of course.
“You mean it’s not Duck Tape?”
“I don’t think it’s used for ducks at all, do you?”
Peals of laughter follow. We sweep and sweep, then begin repairing with the tape. I explain that we do the dryer project before mopping so we don’t ruin our mopping later with lots of dust. We broke our mop handle a few years back, so the mop shares a handle with the broom, which requires unscrewing the broom “head” and replacing it with the “mop” head. Since the broom and mop are never used at the same time, the process works—but Brendan the Over Eager keeps getting ahead of himself, and I find the mop head on my broom again. I give him a mock scolding look.
“Oh, yeah! We still need the broom to be the broom!”
Madeleine begins singing from her bedroom, where she has begun to vacuum. While not so eager as Brendan, she is just back from a field trip to a farm, and she has grown accustomed to work and chores in a new way. She is singing a farm song over the vacuum, so her words are loud and clear.
“I will go with my father a-plowing, to the green field by the sea,
And the rooks and the crows and seagulls will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the patient horses, with the lark in the light of the air,
And my father will sing the plow song that blesses the cleaving share.
Brendan knows the words too, from his first grade circle, and he sings along, now using my putty knife in rhythm, to remove sticky spots from the floor. The duct repaired, I inch the dryer back into place and do a final sweep to remove the last bits of lint. I quickly brush the counters and the stove top to remove the last crumbs before the broom becomes a mop. Both children finish their tasks and beg for who will have what turn with the mop. I fill the sink with hot water and mild soap, and the cloth covers for the flat mop.
“First we must move the dining table. Then Madeleine will clean the cracks between the table leaves with the putty knife,” she grins and nods, “while Brendan takes the first turn mopping. Mop it all, then Madeleine can mop it all with the second mop cloth, while Brendan cleans the bathroom floor.” Each begins a task, singing.
“I will go with my father a-sowing to the red field by the sea,
And the rooks and the gulls and starlings will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the striving sowers with the finch on the flowering sloe,
And my father will sing the seed song that only the wise men know.
I go back and forth, keeping the mop-cloths hot enough to clean, supervising the furniture and floors in the cleaning process, asking for the lyrics of that beautiful song to an old Irish tune.
I will go with my father a-reaping to the brown field by the sea,
And the geese and the crows and children will come flocking after me
I will sing to the weary reapers with the wren in the heat of the sun
And my father will sing the scythe song that joys for the harvest done.”
Neither the father nor the mother at this house knew this song as children, neither the plow song nor the seed song nor the scythe song. Neither the father nor the mother plow, at least not enough to brag about. The father is not sowing or reaping anything this weekend, but he is vacationing a bit, after sowing and reaping young readers at his school. We barely know the wren from the geese. The only weary reaper is the little farmer girl, herself, who slept twelve hours straight last night, so happy to be in her own bed.
Our father in heaven sings the scythe song to the weary reapers, though, on this sunny morning in the house, as we reap a clean floor and a repaired dryer and a trio of uplifted spirits. We barely have time to replace the dining table and chairs when neighbor kids’ voices ring out. The children run outside, calling an impromptu meeting of their seed-saving club. It is payday, they tell me. They run back with $2.10 each for their little banks.
He is such a hard worker. She is such good company to have back home. Scott will come home with energy like a Mexican Jumping Bean, after his visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s special educator day. I am gathering myself for the next leg of my journey to becoming published—I pursue magazine publication, beginning this week, and as far as I can see there is nothing to stop me from learning the ins and outs of the writing business. And now there are two nagging tasks done, as well.
Joys for the harvest, done. Time for lunch.