I was down on my knees cleaning the baseboards in my kitchen after having washed the walls above the stove, cleaned out the cutlery drawer, and given every glass (wine, water, highball, lowball) a once-over. My critical eye had not left one thing unattended, including the need to wipe down each slat on my blinds.
Why the hell was I doing this, and doing it fanatically? For my mother? For the memorial service, or as we are calling it, celebration, that I am throwing to honor her life? That's what I had been telling myself. Telling myself that my recently deceased mother needed more than anything for my baseboards to be free of grime. But while I was scrubbing away, I thought: What sort of homage is this? The woman was filthy. Her nickname was Old Filth, for god's sake. I never saw her wash the back of a plate; she barely bothered with the front. To pick up a book in her apartment, first you had to pry it off the surface where it was held stuck, sometimes for years, by some long-forgotten spilled drink. “Under” didn't exist. Under beds, couches, bookshelves, tables, and chairs, unseen secret worlds were allowed to spring up and fester. I have no doubt that new life forms gained their first tentative toehold in the dark reaches of her bathroom cabinet.
She, herself, was relatively clean, if messy, although when I was in grade school, one kid who saw her pick me up said that her hair looked like it was on fire. Her hair often did reflect her mental state. If she was harried, it was frizzy. Interrupting her writing to attend to any of her children left her hair looking like it had been shot through by a bolt of lightning.
She did bathe regularly, though never seemed to dry herself properly, which left her clothes looking strangely twisted. Buttons were often misaligned, glasses always smudged and crooked.
She smelled good, thank god, except for one worrying period when she was friendly with a fierce Basque woman named Maria, who convinced her that garlic should be consumed raw and in obscene qualities. I met her once for a movie and had to move a couple of seats over.
I think one of the reasons Mother never cleaned is because things weren't changed, merely brought back to their original and presumably pristine state. What she liked was change. What she loved was to tweak things.
Everything was tweaked, starting with her clothes. The necklines of T-shirts were immediately cut out, slits were scissored up pants, skirts were hemmed or let out. She was no Coco Chanel (or creator of her desired look, Mary Quant) but she thought she was. In reality, she was tearing to shreds perfectly good clothes, and yet somehow, she carried it off.
Turns out, she was a trailblazer, wearing ripped T's and jeans decades before what is now the ubiquitous fashion trend. My abiding image is of my mother standing in front of the mirror, one leg jauntily pitched forward, assessing her work. Often the change wasn't enough, and she cast around for a finishing touch; in one instance, she decided that the plastic dome of the cheese dish made for a perfect hat.
Her passion for tweaking certainly wasn't limited to her clothes; her food was put through the same crazy transformation. Now, you might be thinking, isn't that cooking? And you might be right, but it didn't feel like cooking; it felt like not leaving well enough alone. This was particularly true for bread, which she treated as if the middle was inedible. I grew up eating crust sandwiches. If I whined, or complained, I was told all the nutrients were in the crust. I took this as gospel until one day, I baked my own loaf of bread. The crust, it dawned on me, is the same stuff, just cooked more. It is not peel. It is not the tough outer leaves of vegetables, which she also favored, claiming again that anything hard to eat was good for you. The first time she tried a McDonald's hamburger, we must have been on a road trip. She said it couldn’t possibly be real food because you don't need teeth to eat it. (She might have had a point there.)
Naturally, as a kid, I wanted the crust removed from my sandwiches. I wanted my mashed potatoes to be white and creamy, not lumpy and flecked with peel. When I finally did taste my dream mash at a friend’s house, I was disappointed. Where was the flavor? And I wanted my morning orange juice left alone. It was bad enough that Mother thought a typical breakfast ridiculous. ("Why waste a meal eating something as bland as cereal?") So instead, we had soup or leftover dinner, or cheese and pickle crust sandwiches. And to wash it down, there was her health drink: the tweak of all tweaks. Every morning we were made to drink a concoction of orange juice, raw egg, brewer's yeast, a dash of milk, and honey, all whipped up in the blender.
As you would imagine, for much of my life, I fought not to be like Mother, but when I find myself wearing a sweater back to front, thinking as I turn to look in the mirror that I look as elegant as Grace Kelly, that is my mother. When I wake up in the morning and want nothing more than a gutted baked potato stuffed with steamed broccoli, sauerkraut, Branson pickle, and jerk sauce, that is my mother. And when I sit down to write something like this, that is my mother.
So I gave up on the baseboards, which didn’t look a hell of a lot better for all my efforts. Pre-war apartments in New York are a bit like Mother: warped yet wonderful, and next to impossible to clean. Standing there, at a bit of a loss, caught by an unending sadness, I knew one thing for sure: You can’t tweak death, and there's no washing away grief.
Bex Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon. She is now working on a novel entitled The Memoir of an Impossible Mother.