Thursday, November 27, 1997
Turkey, yams and aroma
of Lemon Pledge

The Cincinnati Enquirer

In my family, this is about the time you hear the starting gun for the Great Holiday Cleanup. Oh, not at my own, personal house. We're still finding plastic Easter eggs under the couch cushions. But this is crunch-time for my mom and my aunts, relentless grime-fighters.

These ladies - all of whom qualify for the senior rate when they go to the movies - could out-lunge, out-pump and out-aerobicize any woman at my gym. Free weights? They sling around 40-pound bags of water-softener salt and monster jugs of bottled water. Stairmasters? They climb real stairs 50 times a day with folded underwear and freshly ironed shirts. Rowing? They do the vacuum cleaner stroke. And reps with the mop.

They work out daily with their personal trainer, Mr. Clean. But the big dirt-a-thon is spring and fall.

The bad old days

Comfortably fixed, they could afford the services of some outfit like Maids R Us. But their standards are nearly impossible. These women regularly change their shelf paper, launder dog toys and alphabetize video tapes. Plus they cannot shake a lifetime of saying, ''By the time I tell somebody else how to do it, I might as well do it myself.''

They are a pragmatic mix of old-fashioned virtue and modern aids. One relative - let's call her Aunt Peggy - banished every last molecule of hair spray film from her bathroom, and now spritzes in the garage, primping in the sideview mirror of her car. Just until after the holidays.

Stories like this leave me weak with humility. It almost makes me want to clean my closets and throw away my prom dress. Almost. I believe that I have broken the cycle of cleanliness. Or maybe I just didn't get the scrubbing gene.

Of course, truly accomplished housekeepers are not just born. My grandmother trained them. There were eight children, seven girls and Prince Charlie. My uncle, an excellent man in many respects, does not know which end of the mop is the handle.

Family photos show every little girl with a freshly ironed dress, shiny shoes and long curls. And this was before fabric softener and permanent press and hair gel. Grandma ran a tight ship. The older girls took care of the younger kids. And cleaned, supervised by Grandma, the mother of all housekeepers.

Clothesline envy

Saturday was cleaning day. ''It was hell, if you want to know the truth,'' my mother says. ''You started with bathrooms, and when you got good enough you worked your way up to something better.'' Legend has it that my Aunt Pat, possibly the most compulsive, strips to the buff and cleans her bathroom wearing only long rubber gloves and boots.

But no one has ever seen this.

Wash day was slick with detergent and fragrant with bluing and bleach. Clothes were fed through a hand wringer, and tough stains attacked on the washboard. My grandmother's wash line was the envy of the neighborhood, with everything hung in sequence and by category.

Women like these were never simply excellent housekeepers. It wasn't really about keeping their houses. It was about their families. We were never told we couldn't play in the house or forbidden to bring home our messy and noisy friends.

Bright and energetic, they were not encouraged to ''work outside the home'' but were destined to be very good at whatever work there was. During the war, some became Rosie the Riveters. But, naturally, they surrendered their jobs when the men returned.

Today, every one of my aunties is sitting around a table with her children. And her children's children. If you asked them right now what they are thankful for, they'd probably say Sara and Hank and Janet and David and Thom and Becky and George.

But I'll bet if you had asked them at the beginning of the month, they'd have said Pledge and Windex and Tide and Spic 'n Span and Comet.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.