I just finished a memoir class with the fabulous Victoria Fann at Corinne’s tempting shop, Design Driven. It was a wonderful experience that energized me with the memoir I am working on about my father. Victoria is a great instructor, and the other class members helped me see my writing through fresh eyes. It was great hearing their memoir pieces as well. For the last class, Victoria asked us to write a short piece starting with one of the senses. I thought I’d post this recent piece here for you to read (or not!)
I just want to start with a disclaimer. What I write is true down to the bone, but in spite of the pitiful events I describe, I am a very cheerful person. Also, an apology to my sister: “Sorry, Meri. Sorry to bring this stuff up after so long.”
I am on the search for low cost vases to use to give away my garden bounty of big zinnias. As I enter the old Goodwill Store in the strip mall beside Hopey’s Grocery, I am assaulted with the stink of dirty used clothing. The smell is a combination of sweat, stale tobacco smoke, and mildew. The stench is strong and my stomach turns, so I hurry outside. What is it about that smell? What does it remind me of?
I am taken back to the childhood home I shared with my parents and sister. The four of us shared one tiny bathroom, and it was my job on Saturday mornings to clean it before I could leave the house to meet my friends.
My bedroom was beside the bathroom, and my sister’s room was down the hall. When we moved into the house, my mother used her decorating expertise to furnish both bedrooms. She designed my room in a color combination of dark purple and black, something like a bruise. Above my twin bed with its harlequin black and purple comforter was an antique iron sconce painted black with two candle-like lights with six inch long black spikes pointing downward. When I looked up to switch off the lights at night, it seemed as if they were drawing closer to my eyes. I called them, “Torture Chamber Lighting.” Black shutters covered the windows.
My sister Meri’s room next-door was a stark contrast to my room. Hers was yellow and white with daisies and ruffles on her comforter. She had frilly dotted swiss curtains and wicker baskets full of fake daisies. The contrast was Spring and Dead of Winter. I asked my mother why she chose that color scheme for my room, and she explained that she thought it was more sophisticated. I tried to accept that explanation, but was still jealous of Meri’s bright room.
Saturday mornings as early as I could drag myself out of bed in order to escape as soon as possible, I would retrieve the plastic bucket from the garage, pour in Spic and Span, grab rags and a scrub brush, and carry the materials to the bathroom at the top of the stairs. There I would fill the bucket with hot water from the bathtub spout. I’d get on my hands and knees and begin the odious task ahead of me. I pushed aside the plastic shower curtain striped with streaks of black mildew, and I used the brush to scrub the bathtub with its ring of greasy dirt and soap scum. Then I’d work on the small hexagonal black and white tiles on the floor. The worst part was the area around the toilet which seemed to collect the most hair and dead skin. I’d have to pull the accumulated junk off the brush and shake it off my hands into the trash, which I would empty later. I don’t remember ever changing the towels or washcloths, although my mother might have done so from time to time. My mother was a smoker and the bathroom held the stale smell of tobacco on her bathrobe which hung on the hook behind the door. I didn’t have to dry my face in order to smell the sour towels.They smelled worse than a tarp that someone had put away wet in the garage. I’d wipe the dried toothpaste out of the sink and pour the filthy water from the bucket into the toilet before I used the long brush and Tidy Bowl to clean the bowl. Even the medicinal scent of Spic and Span could not cover the sour smell of the room when I was done.
After I finished the bathroom, I was tasked with vacuuming the hallway upstairs. This part of my Saturday ritual was less daunting than the bathroom, but subject to threats from my father. He was concerned that the sound of the vacuum cleaner might wake my sister, asleep in her cheery room. “What’s wrong with you?” he would hiss. “Stay away from your sister’s door. Don’t you realize that she is still sleeping! Let her get some rest!”
When he went back downstairs I would concentrate my vacuuming immediately in front of her door, making sure to slam the vacuum against her door until I heard her start yelling: “Daddy! Make her stop.”
By then I had moved to the other end of the hall so if Harry came thundering up the stairs swinging his belt, I’d just shrug. “Nothing happening here…”