This posting comes direct to you from Toronto’s Only Cafe, venue of the monthly Draft reading series. Last weekend I was invited to read excerpts from my unpublished manuscript about my life as a cleaning lady cum obituary writer. The book is tentatively titled Her Pen Like a Broom and one day I’m going to patch it all together for you.
Meanwhile, at the reading, I wound the pages into a scroll–exhibiting an elegance too often withheld from this of us knee-deep in other folks’ dirt. Enjoy. And please fail to notice that, in the accompanying photo, I’m holding the scroll upside down.
I prefer to clean someone’s house when I arrive fresh from a particularly difficult and painful moment with anyone—my son, my partner, an acquaintance, an extended family member, or even a stranger on the street. Sometimes all I can cope with is scrubbing down shower stalls, angrily tearing open the curtains. After funerals, during labour, fresh from heartbreak, house cleaning applies the glue, keeps things in place, steady, predictable and fresh.
I spend many hours among other people’s lives, either in their homes with their dirt or while mucking about through old family photographs and memorabilia I peruse while researching an obituary. Long-dead relatives smile out at me in grainy pictures. They sometimes tell their particular stories.
These people are usually strangers to me; their lives are already long past and they are barely remembered in family lore. I touch these objects, ask questions about them, and carve out biographical order. I think about them for a long time afterwards; sometimes I discover them in the corners of my dreams.
Sometimes cleaning house is all we are capable of doing. Every time I’m assigned a new obituary to write, and have to place my first calls with the subject’s family, I imagine what it must take for them to move through the days, swashing the deck free of the freshest grief, and unbearable heartbreak.
I attended a funeral service lately and there was a woman pallbearer, which surprised me, and so in the church basement a while later I asked how she knew the deceased. “I cleaned his house for thirty years,” she said.