Talking Story

Mom was frugal. She ran a tight ship when it came to things like paper towels, milk, and cereal. A lot of it came from how she grew up. There were times when her town’s steel mill closed over union disputes, and, like all their neighbors, they lived on the things they grew in their summer garden and canned for winter.

When I close my eyes, I can still see the rows and rows of mason jars, each labeled and dated, on Grandma’s shelves in her cool, dark basement, the scent of damp cement, potatoes, and rich dirt tickling the back of my throat.

And spiders. Can’t forget the *^%^&%!! spiders!

As a kid I hated cold cereal with milk, not because Sugar Smacks or Wheaties tasted bad, but because I HAD to drink the nasty cereal milk left in the bottom of the bowl. Dumping it out in the sink was tantamount to burning money, making me the most shameful, wasteful child of all. Because of this, I became a math prodigy who could calculate to the gram the perfect ratios of milk and cereal.

Probably should’ve pursued a career in chemistry instead of word alchemy.

Mom had a specific way she insisted we cleaned the bathrooms. If you did it right, you could clean the whole thing spotless using just one paper towel, a scrub brush, and a toilet brush. The one paper towel trick only worked because you went from relatively clean (mirror) to progressively dirty (underneath the toilet seat).
You started with sprinkling Comet in the tub, toilet, and sink. You used the scrub brush on everything except the toilet—that’s where the other brush came in—to swish around the bowl and scratch under the rim.

Done with the Comet, you sprayed Windex on most things and carefully used your one paper towel to first clean the mirror, then to shine the sink and tub’s faucets and drains, then ran it along the baseboards, until finally, you folded and folded the soggy scraps to use on the toilet sides, back, and seat, saving the most germy parts for last.

Heaven help you if things didn’t sparkle or Mom spotted TWO paper towels in the trash. The only thing worse was if she caught you mixing up the order. We all thought we’d die if anyone went mirror-toilet-tub-sink. And we would have, just not from germs.

Mom’s cleanliness standards were surgical. In her house, you didn’t worry about the 5 second rule; you could eat a whole meal off the floor at any time.

When I look at my own house through my mother’s eyes, I know I’ve fallen short. We all make choices and pick our battles. I decided early on that I would give up perfection if it meant my kids and husband did some of the chores. Mostly, I’m okay with it.

But there are times when it’s hard to give up those ingrained patterns. The pandemic seems to have shifted my anti-waste sensors to overdrive.

My husband grew up in dairy country where milk was like water. It makes me cringe every time he dumps the last quarter ounce in his glass down the sink. Yesterday, my grown son tore THREE or FOUR paper towels off the roll to clean just ONE kitchen counter.

I think I deserve chocolate for not taking his head off.

Instead I explained that there was a new fangled invention called a dish rag. Unlike a paper towel, you use it, WASH it, and use it again.

But not to clean a toilet. That’s still paper towel territory in my book.

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