Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • "Are you going to wash the walls?"

    "What? No!, I don't know. Why?" I asked, as if this were a game show and the answer was of serious consequence.

    "Well 'cause that determines the finish you need. Flat if you are not going to wash them, eggshell if you are."

    I stood there silent, my mind leaping back 35 years to a Saturday morning at my grandmother's house in the city. "House" is generous - it really was an apartment within a building that they owned. They lived on one floor, rented out the one above. We called these "two flats" in Chicago.

    That day she taught me, at age 10, how to wash walls. Contrary to intuition, you start at the bottom and work your way up, so that that drips don't stain. You begin in a corner, and work your way out. That way you can't lose track of where you are.

    All of this was of highest importance to my grandmother. Cleanliness was the great equalizer to her.

    "Soap is cheap!" she would scoff, driving me through the other ethnic neighborhoods. While I noticed size and architecture, she fixated on window panes, and would cast scathing judgement on anything less than gleaming.

    "They are dirty, those Italians" she would say, shaking her head side to side.

    "Maybe, but they sure know how to cook!" I would answer. My mother's best friend growing up, Karen, was Italian and I loved visiting them. Karen's husband worked in a pizza joint with a juke box for awhile and it was a rare Friday night treat to drive from the suburbs into the city, hang out and feed coins into the juke box - Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon. Their daughters, Lisa and Vicki, were my age and we would get to sit in our own booth, separate from the parents. We'd sing along and eat cheese pizza, eye the older boys across booths but only on the sly - I was both hugely fascinated and also equally intimidated. These were city boys, after all. Heaven at age 12.

    My grandmother, on the other hand, was pulled out of school at age 12 to clean houses. She needed to start contributing income for her family which was comprised of 8 siblings, a half deaf mother and father who worked in the mines. I visited that house last summer in Johnstown, PA. It seemed impossibly small, with a deep front yard and a shack out back where my great grandfather made moonshine. My mother says she fondly remembers summers there, and my great grandmother's garden - the front yard packed with all sorts of fruit trees, vegetables, and even chickens running about.

    "Chickens? Seriously? Here?"

    I was doubting her story but my Uncle was there to verify. "No shit!" he exclaimed. "It was just like that. Amazing..."

    "Oh yoi...gone to hell in a handbasket" is what my grandmother would have said to see it now - boarded up, abandoned houses, rusting chain linked fences softened by weeds. Grafitti. It depressed me. I worked hard to conjure up those happier images my mother insisted were true but drove away distraught and silent.

    But I digress - back to the paint, the walls.

    My grandmother thought it necessary to wash walls regularly. She also kept plastic covers on the furniture and had a clear rubber runner on the rug through the heavily traversed center path of the living room. She would get up at 3am and rearrange furniture and not remember doing it in the morning. Cleanliness and order were quite literally close to godliness to her.

    Devoutly catholic, she went to confession weekly. I always imagined her saying "Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been two days since I scrubbed the floor."

    She had a temper, strong opinions and a wicked sense of humor. Often they all went hand-in-hand. She had proclamations that no one dared to challenge, like "Rich people are slobs!" She would launch into vivid, often hysterical detail about the filthy bathrooms, unkempt bedrooms, and piles of dirty dishes she remembered from the prominent Johnstown families for whom she worked in her teenaged years. She didn't seem to realize that this was not a character flaw but rather just utility - they were busy doing other things and it was her job to clean up after them, period.

    I think by around 12 I had figured this out, but didn't say anything. It was far too much fun to watch Grandma spout. And sing, and dance, and laugh. She laughed a lot, particularly after a few manhattans.

    As I look about my own house - the unmade beds, the piles of clothes, the unwashed walls, it often occurs to me that if she were alive to see all of this she might be appalled. It might be hard for her to understand why I chose a life of working full-time and traveling, as opposed to staying home to diligently attend to homemade meals, ironed sheets and immaculate floors. She might shake her head at how I became one of "them" - the ones who hire people like her. The people who apologize for the mess each time and say "do what you can...thanks!" and race out the door.

    Then again, she might also be a little impressed, pleased - with the people I meet, the money I raise for kids who are smart but cannot afford it to go to a top drawer prep school - people like she was - and from that open door can go to on to college. Great colleges. "Those schools the rich kids go to - Jesus, Mary and Joseph, imagine that!" she might say and laugh, marveling at her strapping great grandsons. Tall and blue-eyed, just like her boys were, my uncles. At least I like to think so.

    So with all this racing through my mind in the five seconds I stood at the paint counter I answered

    "Eggshell. I'll have the eggshell finish, please."

    I doubt I'll get around to washing the walls. But you just never know - I have been waking up at 3am a lot lately.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.