Cleaning

When they gave me tenure at the university I flew out to Wyoming to give my mother the good news face to face. I knew she’d appreciate that, and it had been a while, quite a while in fact, since I’d seen her. It was not the easiest time for such a trip. My new book was just coming out, with all the last-minute changes and all the obligations that involves. But I was able to grade student papers on the plane. And I needed the change of scene. Even my familiar boyhood home constituted a significant change of scene at that moment, and not at all an unpleasant one.

I was a bit startled at first to see no curtains on the windows; but it turned out that my mother had taken them all down for cleaning. After all, she wasn’t expecting me. She answered the door after a good two minutes of knocking, during which I became slightly worried. Mom was wearing a robe and had blue curlers in her hair. I was startled. She’d grown frighteningly old, and she seemed panicked by my appearance. I think it took her a second or two just to understand that it was I. “Hi, Mom!” I said, and went to hug her. She hugged me resistantly for a moment and then ran inside, saying she wasn’t presentable. I say “ran” because she somehow gave the impression of hurrying despite the fact that she seemed incapable of any fast movement. I was left to close the door and find a seat on a very familiar sofa. And there I sat for forty minutes. My mother was making herself presentable for me. That was something I never could have imagined. Nor had I really expected her arms to feel so wet and bony as they had when she’d hugged me.

When she returned, my mother acted as if she would hug me again, this time for real; but she hesitated and sat herself down slowly in a chair across from me. Why did she hesitate like that? Were we so unknown to each other? “Well?” said my mom, “What do you think?”

“I’m glad to see you,” I said.

My mother had meant something else. “I’m glad to see YOU,” she said. “What do you think of the house?” My mother looked very proud when she said this. Her shoulders were brought back. She had on a pleasant dress, I guess, now – one I’d never seen. She wore a good bit of makeup.

“It’s the same old house,” I said. “I remember . . . “

Horror, real horror came over my mother’s face. “Have- have you LOOKED around you?” she asked me. “Every room in this house, except the kitchen yet, has been repainted this year. This carpeting has been cleaned. Every item in this room has been taken down and dusted since the holidays. The chairs are reupholstered. Do you see . . . ” She broke off and drew breath; she’d tried to say too much. I still didn’t understand the importance of it. The house looked rather shabby, though no doubt immaculately scrubbed and dusted.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I hadn’t noticed. You know it’s been a while since I was here.” I thought of mentioning the empty windows, but thought better of it. When I said “It’s beautiful,” some lines immediately vanished from my mother’s neck. But she replied:

“And why has it been a while?” There was something bitter and ironic in the way she repeated my words.

“Well, I do have a family, Mom,” I said, “and I’ve been busy. I have some good news to tell you.”

“Oh, and what is that?”

“They’ve given me tenure at the university.”

“Well, that is nice. They must think you’re doing important work.”

“No, Mom, not at all. I’m just doing my job.”

“What are you working on?”

“On propositions and modalities. I’ve told you about it before.”

“I know, I know, but tell me what a problem is you’re solving, because when I tried to explain it to Myrtle last month I couldn’t quite manage.”

I didn’t mind explaining at all. My head was full of my latest book. “Here’s a problem,” I said. “It’s a well-established problem. I didn’t think it up. We know that the morning star and the evening star are actually both the same thing, the planet Venus. Ancient astronomers didn’t know that. So, take the following proposition: ‘Thales believes that the morning star is in the sky.’ Is it or is it not the case that at the time when that proposition is true it is also true that ‘Thales believes that the evening star is in the sky’?”

“But he, Tha-, whatever he’s called, he’s dead, right?”

“Yes, Mom, he’s long been dead.”

“I haven’t even asked you if you’re hungry. I have a roast on, and I baked some cakes yesterday.”

“No, thanks, not yet. Who did you bake the cakes for?”

“Well just to, well for you it is looking like.”

“OK. But do you understand the problem? It doesn’t matter if Myrtle understands, but do you understand?”

“No.”

“Well, look. If we ask Thales whether he believes the evening star is in the sky, he says ‘no,’ right? But at the same time he believes that something which IS the evening star is in the sky.”

“Weren’t you working on this five years ago, and before that when . . .”

“Yes. And it’s a problem that was discovered before I was born, Mom. It takes a good deal of serious and rigorous work to solve problems of this nature.”

“I repapered inside all of the drawers in the tables. Take a look.”

It seemed from my mother’s expression as if I’d better. I looked and commented appreciatively. Then I asked about the curtains, and was told they were down to be washed. It was going slowly because of my mother’s back. She could lean over the bathtub only so long before it would “give out.”

“You could have someone else do it,” I said.

“I wouldn’t trust them,” she replied. Then she was silent.

I said, “I’m sorry for not coming more often. I’ll have to start coming more. You must get bored once in a while.”

“Oh, NO,” my mom almost shrieked, “I’ve got too much to do, as you see, in keeping this big old house up. They say I shouldn’t try to do it, but you know I can’t leave this place. One day I will have to. I’m aware of that. But not yet. And while I’m here, there’s more work than anybody could want, I mean more work than to keep busy any person.”

“All right, but don’t do too much. Don’t hurt your back. There’s no need to dust every article in the house every month, for example, when there can’t be much dust in this place. And you don’t have to bake cakes, do you?”

“I like something sweet.”

“Well, OK, but there’s no reason to do anything useless.”

My mother looked me hard in the face. I regretted saying it. I deeply regretted it. “We learn a little information about a planet,” my mother said, “and a million years later you can’t get used to the change.”

“Mom, you don’t understand. A million years ago there was not much astronomy.” Perhaps that was not quite to the point. I’m simply recording what I said at the time.

My mother said: “But there was house-cleaning. And there was such things as remembering one’s mother.”