Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jobs: Childhood Chores

Most parents probably justify a child's allowance by allocating household chores. Then, as now, I found unadulterated cleaning to be a form of torture, a silly punishment that didn't need to be imposed. *I* had better things to do, I'd tell myself, while my PARENTS just worked and decorated and cooked and cleaned all day, and afterwards read the paper or made macramé giraffes...what was a bit more cleaning and working to those who were already accustomed, who could hardly know what they were missing?

Washing dishes wasn't so bad because there was a definite end to it. Vacuuming was more annoying...you could always do a more thorough job, there was always one more dog hair or piece of fluff that could be sucked up from some corner, under something. Vacuuming was also silly because you never saw the results of NOT vacuuming, the pile-up of dust and hair and paper-scraps that most parents don't tolerate but those who live alone sometimes do, me included.

Leaf-raking was similar to vacuuming in that there was always one more leaf; you had to pick a threshold beyond which you didn't need to rake anymore. I liked (and still prefer) ABSOLUTE jobs, where you start with a pile on one side and end up with a pile on the other; nothing in between, no arbitrary ending, a crashing finale instead of an indecisive fade out.

The winter was about shovelling snow, and the endless argument about why the ENTIRE sidewalk needed to be cleared rather than just a shovel-width path down the middle. Summer was about mowing the lawn, the junkyard smell of oil and gasoline in a rusty old lawn mower that barely started but was still too functional to replace, the random and endless yanking of the mower's cord, hearing the engine sputter, yanking again, hearing it die. And when you finally got it started you had to plot a course around all the ridiculous yard obstacles -- bird baths, telephone poles, trees, things YOU would never choose to put there -- without forcing yourself to backtrack or waste your energy by overlapping sections you'd already finished.

Sometimes you'd find the hidden rock; the mower would scrape and thrash, you'd remember stories of kids who'd lost fingers and heads from a broken, spinning, mower-blade missile. You wanted your fingers, you needed your head, you could easily imagine the pain and the stumps. But still you'd dare yourself to get closer and closer to that rock, and you'd always eventually hit it. Deathwish, solitaire chicken, the invincibility of youth?

I also mowed the lawn for Ida, the old lady down the street. She'd stagger across the yard with a pair of limp, hopeless stockings pooled around her ankles, the same stockings she'd tie her garbage bags with...one weekly shopping bag half-filled with the bird-like pickings of a woman who no longer enjoyed eating. She made me feel awkward, tongue-tied, I was taking money for something I should really have been doing for free. I accepted the cookies from her musky pantry full of spiders but I managed to avoid eating them. When I looked at those cookies I saw her bruised and gristled legs, her wooly hair, her teeth, her veins. It doesn't seem strange that Ida is dead now; it is most surprising that she lived so long, alone, barely mobile, with me mowing her lawn and hating every second.

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