What is it about dust? Why do so many of us – and not just women, I’ll bet – cringe in embarrassment if our tables, bookcases, or wood floors are even lightly sprinkled with dust? Why is there, in every home, a lowly piece of cloth designated The Dust Rag?
I grew up the daughter of a woman who hated dust, and followed a rigid plan for ridding her home of it. Each weekday was designated as cleaning day for this or that room, and she knew that only a fool would vacuum before dusting. These days, our vastly new-and-improved vacuum cleaners give off far less dust than those early models, but old habits die hard. So while the first order of business may be putting stuff away, and the last is running the vacuum (or Hoovering, as the English like to call it), in between, you dust.
It’s amazing the way dust gathers. Just let the sun shine through the living room windows, and you’ll see – it’s on the light bulbs, inside the toaster , all over the knick knacks, which aren’t called “dust catchers” for nothing. Look at a bright sunbeam as it sticks its fingers into the room and you’ll see a disquieting sight – hundreds of dust particles, hanging or moving slowly in the air. How depressing. I mean, really, why bother? Won’t dusting just stir it all up?
Plus, we know it’s made up of all kinds of awful things: human and pet skin and hair, pollen, mold, fungi, sheet rock, insect parts, food waste, possibly asbestos, even tiny bits of metal debris from door hinges. That odor you notice when the furnace first kicks in every fall? That’s the smell of this stuff baking.
My poor mother had a relative who could never be pleased when it came to housekeeping. I can’t remember if it was a great aunt or, God forbid, her mother-in-law, but this woman, my Mom told me, would actually perform the white-glove test. She actually wore white gloves, the cotton kind we used to wear to church, and run a finger along the tippy top of a cupboard or refrigerator. Places no one could see; places she was sure to find a tell-tale smudge of dust. Had she not found any, just think how disappointed she would have been.
The worst thing, especially when company is coming, is to casually glance up just as the guests are ascending the front steps to see what I call a “cobweb” (born of dust, not spiders) hanging languidly from the ceiling. Oh, no! How gross! How indicative of our sloppy cleaning! How will we get it down?
This is, I suppose what Swiffers are for. Mom had its antecedent, a plain old dustmop, which could reach any ceiling and then be separated from its pole and thrown into the wash. First, of course, she would step onto the stoop and shake it vigorously, after first determining which way the wind was blowing. Do people do this anymore? Some days when I’m dashing outside, whether it’s minus ten or plus eighty degrees, to shake a rag or a mop or a rug, I wonder. It often feels like I’m the only person on the block still performing this ancient ceremony.
Soon, no one may understand the origins of the delightfully named Shake Rag Street, in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. What a shame.
Once, I was staying at my childhood home during a break from college, and my parents went on a two-week trip. I promised to keep the house clean, just as clean as Mom did. (And Dad, I should say. I once spotted him frantically wiping down the counters of the main floor bathroom as his stepmother and her two unmarried daughters arrived unannounced. I was appalled, but not really surprised.) So on Monday, I cleaned the living room, and on Tuesday, the bedrooms. And so on. The following Monday, it was back to the living room, dust cloth and Fuller Brush Man spray in the other. The thing was, I couldn’t actually detect any dust on the furniture. I could see how my best-laid plans might go astray, the longer I was in charge of a house.
And so it went. I grew up, moving into a series of neat-enough apartments, and I got married, feathering a series of nests which I cleaned when the spirit moved me. Had anyone come at me with a white glove, I’d have marched them out of the house.
And yet I do care how things look. Just a few weekends ago, during that Indian Summer warmth, I nearly killed myself digging up all the weeds that had grown out of the dirt between the concrete slabs and sidewalks in our driveway. Some areas had dirt and charcoal ashes a half-inch thick. So I dug, and I weeded, until most of it was gone.
I had not yet pried up the last narrow layer of dirt between the patio and the small garage door and swept it away. And now I don’t know if I will, because when I looked out the east window to admire my handiwork, I saw sparrows, nearly a dozen of them, rolling ecstatically in the dust bath I’d left behind. Oh my, were they going at it. For a bird, dirt and dust are a necessity, the best way to rid themselves of nits and insects. Watching them spread their wings and quiver around in the dirt, you could not have told me they weren’t enjoying themselves. Sometimes, it’s best to leave the dust where it lies.