The Cleaning Lady

"My earliest memory of Aunt Helen is a continuous swirl of moving parts."

I can't tell you exactly when it was my aunt was bitten by the bug. As far as I can remember, that's just the way she had always been. No one in her neat little circle of family and friends ever really made a major production over her behavior. Most of us just accepted her condition as sort of quirky in a roll-your-eyes kind of way. Upon meeting her for the first time, however, there were those who just assumed she was from a military family or spent some time herself in the armed forces. My aunt had the Windex-holstered, Swifter-toting cleaning bug. And its work was never done.

My earliest memory of Aunt Helen is a continuous swirl of moving parts. She was half-woman, half-machine. One moment, she would be mopping the floor, and the next moment she'd be shoveling snow off the driveway before it even had time to decide whether to melt or stick. She resembled the very appliances she was so enamored of -- single-minded, smooth-running, and effectively serving the home's occupants. This polishing act was not limited to her own home. In fact, she carried the bug to our house on a daily basis. Since my parents divorced when my sister and I were quite young, my aunt felt an obligation to "help out" around the house. It was either the selfless act of a caring sister, or a window of opportunity that was streaky and in need of cleaning. My mother went with the latter.

"Don't let her fool you," my mother would say. "She wouldn't miss being here for the world."

There were days that my aunt hardly spoke a word to us when she was, as my mother would say, "on the clock." Mostly, her self-imposed duties hardly interfered with our daily routine of doing homework, playing Yahtzee, or reading comic books. That is, unless my sister and I were watching Scooby-Doo in the living room when Aunt Helen came chugging through with the vacuum cleaner in high gear. We would race to pull the plug on her so as not to miss a single "Zoinks!" or "Jinkies" from Shaggy and the gang.

"Didn't you hear that?" my aunt might ask, referring to the crackling noise going up the tube before she was suddenly silenced by me or my sister. "That's dirt!"

"No," my sister might calmly reply, settling into her spot on the couch. "That's popcorn."

As kids, we never really felt a dust-speck of guilt for this voluntary servitude. We sensed she was happiest when doing her thing. So why not enjoy the benefits of a loved one's compulsions? We never thought that maybe there just might be other forces at work behind her Mrs. Clean exterior. We were kids, after all -- kids who made messes. The relationship worked great for us. Apart from vacuuming at critical times of the day like cartoon hour, the disturbances caused by Aunt Helen's compulsions were fairly minor. While eating dinner with her mopping around us, we might occasionally feel a bump against our chair or be asked to raise our feet. However, if I spilled something on my shirt, I would be ordered to immediately hand the soiled garment over while she prepped her cleaning products and filled the kitchen sink with hot water, since time was apparently of the essence.

My mother wasn't one to complain about my aunt's antiseptic behavior either. Free maid service with two kids was a blessing, and when she came home from working at a high school cafeteria all day, the last thing she wanted to do was wait on a couple more kids, even if they were her own.

"You really don't need to organize that pantry again," my mother might say. "Johnny's uniform is grass-stained, and he has a game tomorrow."

"Oh, sure, what do you take me for? I have to get home for Bob," my aunt might shoot back, referring to my uncle, who we really only saw in her wallet and on holidays and birthdays.

But the exchange between sisters was short-lived, lasting no longer than a puff of steam from an upturned iron. If there was a job to do, Aunt Helen would do it and do it right. Uncle Bob could wait a few more minutes. What no one, not even my mother, really understood at the time was that Bob probably wouldn't be there waiting anyway.

Some twenty years later, some things have certainly changed, and some have remained pretty much the same. My aunt no longer has Uncle Bob to go home to. He met a high school sweetheart at a class reunion during my sophomore year in high school and promptly moved 1,500 miles away, catching everyone, except maybe my aunt, by complete surprise. Did the cleaning bug cause him to look outside the no-dirt zone or did his wandering eye give birth to the little bugger that gripped my aunt all these years? Maybe she saw her home coming apart and did everything she could to put things in order -- literally. I guess we all deal with disorder in our own way.

One would think that with a new, visible husband, a happy marriage, and a little rust now on her bones that my aunt and her bug would have mellowed. Not exactly. My wife is in her glory when Aunt Helen visits. She purposefully neglects to clean our Lazy Susan because she knows that is what my aunt has been thinking about from the moment she was invited over, considering the effort she put into it during her last visit. That and whether or not we finally purchased a can of furniture polish since "Windex is for windows!"

Her next visit will be particularly pleasing, though. It will be my son's three-year birthday party, and with him leaving debris and bits of wreckage in his wake, now could not be a better time for a visit from Aunt Helen and her little friend. I'll stand a safe distance away behind my camcorder as I film my son tearing open gifts like Jaws on spring break in Cancun. Occasionally, the blur of a hand will dart into the frame and deftly catch bits of wrapping paper before they even hit the floor. Off-frame, they will be neatly folded and placed in a white plastic trash bag. The cleaning bug is alive and well.

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

Cover image via alphaspirit I Shutterstock