Elizabeth jumped out of bed on Saturday morning at seven o’clock. She opened her closet, her eyes scanning the rack of designer clothes. She didn’t choose any of these, though. Instead, she turned to the right where a small chest of drawers stood. She squatted down and opened the bottom drawer. She grabbed a pair of threadbare sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt from the drawer, and a pair of canvas slip-ons from the floor and put these on. Elizabeth went into the en-suite bathroom and pulled her hair back into a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Her shoulder-length hair looked like she just stepped out of a shampoo commercial, thanks to her hair stylist. She paid him a fortune every 4 weeks to keep her hair shiny, healthy, and a perfect shade of auburn. Why not? She could afford it.
She would take a shower later, but now she splashed water on her face, brushed her teeth and then headed downstairs to the kitchen. Elizabeth poured filtered water into the coffeemaker, ground some Hawaiian Kona coffee beans, filled the maker with the freshly ground beans, and set the machine to brew. She took her cleaning caddy from the utility closet and set off down the hall to the guest bathroom, the first of four bathrooms in her large, suburban house.
Cleaning the three full bathrooms and one guest bathroom was Elizabeth’s Saturday morning routine. She had a luxurious three-bedroom home in a desirable neighborhood. She had a housekeeper who came in twice a week to dust, vacuum, mop the floors, do laundry, iron and even wash the windows. But, at Elizabeth’s request, the housekeeper did not clean the bathrooms. Elizabeth reserved the cleaning of the bathrooms for herself. She needed to do it. It kept her grounded to reality.
She started her routine by going into each bathroom and opening the windows to ventilate the rooms. Then, in each room, she would toss a toilet-cleaner tab into each bowl and spray the shower stalls and the tile around the tub/shower combinations with soap scum spray. The spray was a concoction of her own making. It was almost magical in its ability to clean soapy film off shower enclosures, but it had a strong vinegar odor, so Elizabeth sprayed the surfaces quickly, but thoroughly, and left each bathroom, closing the door behind her. After the last one, she went downstairs to drink a cup of coffee and allow the soap scum spray to do its work.
As she leaned on the work island in the kitchen, she thought back on her childhood and the reason for this Saturday morning ritual.
In 1975, when Elizabeth was born, her father was a Wall Street foreign exchange trader and she and her parents lived in White Plains. Elizabeth spent her first twelve years swimming at the country club, taking tennis lessons, competing in equestrian jumping and dressage events, and going to a private school. There was a nanny, a cook, a housekeeper and a “girl.” The housekeeper kept things rolling along and did light housework. The “girl” did the heavy cleaning. Elizabeth thought everyone lived like this. Her mother did not work at a job, but was on the boards of several charities. Elizabeth saw little of her father. He left the house early in the morning to go into the city and when he came home, he would sometimes go into his home office to work or go out somewhere with her mother. As a forex trader, he often had to be awake at odd hours to buy currencies in countries on the other side of the globe. Elizabeth would sometimes wake in the night to hear him in his home office. This always made her feel safe.
Elizabeth finished her coffee and went into each bathroom by to rinse the soap scum cleaner off the shower walls. After wiping down the showers, she used a squeegee and then a microfiber cloth to dry the walls. After she finished this task in all the rooms, she performed the rest of the chores one bathroom at a time. The toilet tab she had thrown into the toilet when she had opened the windows had had time to dissolve completely, so she scrubbed the inside of the toilet with a brush and checked the plastic hanging toilet cleaner, replacing it if necessary. She checked the toilet paper and tissue boxes, noting if anything needed replacing, and then she took all the towels and threw them out the bathroom door into the hallway. She cleaned all the porcelain—the tubs, toilets, sinks and the bidet in her en-suite bathroom—with a non-abrasive paste, then wiped each one with a wet cloth and buffed it with the drying cloth. As she polished and buffed, she thought back to when it all went wrong with her parents.
In the ‘80s, there seemed to be much more money and many more parties than there had ever been before. There were extravagant purchases by both her parents. A very snooty woman with huge eyeglasses that made her look like an insect came and redecorated the entire house. All of Elizabeth’s birthday parties during this time were so lavish that she didn’t even enjoy them. It was as if the parties were a way for her mother to outshine the neighbors and not a way for her to celebrate the anniversary of her daughter’s birth. In addition, her father and mother began arguing late at night when they thought she was asleep. They didn’t seem to like each other very much anymore. There were harsh whispered words: pills, cocaine, Scotch, tennis pro, little chippie, shopaholic, alcoholic, workaholic. Her parents were not happy together, but seemed to resent it when the other wasn’t there. It went on like that for a while, with ups and downs, but nothing changing, until it all collapsed when she was twelve. For years after it happened she, like her parents, saw October 19, 1987 as the day their world fell apart, but looking back with the eyes of an adult, she realized it began way before Black Monday, the day of the Wall Street crash.
Elizabeth took a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner and wiped all the flat surfaces, the toilet tank, the faucets and handles. When those items were sufficiently shiny, she switched cloths and spray bottles and cleaned the mirrors. She repeated these steps in each bathroom, returned her cleaning caddy to the utility closet and removed the vacuum cleaner, along with a box of tissues for the guest bath and two rolls of toilet paper for the master bathroom. Elizabeth dragged the canister vacuum to the guest bath and left it there while she went on to the linen closet, where she picked up new towels. In each bathroom, she placed the fresh towels on the towel racks and rods and dropped off the tissues and TP where appropriate. She gathered the old towels from the floor and threw them down the laundry chute to the basement before taking the vacuum around to each bathroom for a thorough cleaning. She used all the attachments and concentrated on getting into every crevice.
As Wall Street crashed, so did her family. Her father was hard hit as he had a lot of money in New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong, where the crash began. The European and US markets had a heads up as the Asian markets tumbled and could mitigate the effects to a small extent, but her father lost everything. He lost his money. He also lost his clients’ money and his job. As a result, they had to leave the country club. There were no more tennis lessons. The horse and all its equipment were sold. Elizabeth started attending the local public school. Her parents fought all the time now. Things went even further downhill. Her father couldn’t keep a job. Her mother wanted to sell the house and simplify their lives, but her father kept insisting that everything would be fine. He just needed a bit more time to find the right fit.
Three years after the crash, things were no better. The nanny, the cook, the housekeeper, and the “girl” were long gone. Elizabeth’s mother tried to keep up with the house and the cooking, but it was too much for her. The house fell into disrepair. Small, decorative items started going missing from the house, Elizabeth noticed, as her parents had to sell or pawn things to pay the bills.
It all came to a head with another crash. Her father crashed his car one night coming home from who-knows-where and didn’t survive. Elizabeth had just turned fifteen. As soon as the insurance paid out, Elizabeth’s mother sold the house and everything in it and moved them to an apartment in a less expensive part of town. Her mother tried to find a job, but she had no training and no work history. She had graduated from college with a degree in English Literature and had married Elizabeth’s father the weekend after graduation. Her mother tried hard to put food on the table, but it wore her down. They were living hand to mouth, and she didn’t know how to live like that. Elizabeth wondered if her mother would also crash her car “accidentally.” She had always thought that her father’s accident had been suspicious. Her mother carried on living, but she never thrived. She faded away, shrank into a shadow of herself. She never fully recovered from either crash.
Elizabeth brought the vacuum back to the utility closet and took out a bucket, a foam pad, and a large terry cloth rag. She filled the bucket at the sink, adding a floor cleaning liquid that smelled like oranges. Supposedly, it cut grease. Elizabeth simply liked the way it smelled. There was a mop in the utility closet that the housekeeper used for the other floors in the house, but Elizabeth washed the bathroom floors on her hands and knees. She used the foam pad to kneel on as she scrubbed.
Soon after her father died, Elizabeth got her first job at a motel as a chambermaid. She had pored over the classified ads and had walked in and out of retail stores all over town looking for work. It was difficult to find someone who would hire a fifteen-year-old off the books. It had to be off the books because, at age fifteen, she couldn’t get a work permit. Work as a chambermaid was all she could get. She took the job because it was more regular than babysitting and it paid a little more. On the job, Elizabeth learned how to clean, how to make a bed, how to operate the washing machines, how to iron. She learned the value and pride involved in hard physical work. She learned to appreciate those who spent their lives doing manual labor. In the years following the financial crash, as Elizabeth’s home life had gotten messier, the home itself had gotten messy, too. After she got the job at the motel, she kept the apartment clean. It seemed to perk her mother up a bit. Elizabeth had had many jobs throughout the rest of high school, while she attended college, and as she worked her way up to the position she held now, but she never forgot the job that lifted her up out of despair by putting her on her knees with a scrub brush in her hand.
Elizabeth emptied the bucket, wrung out the cloth and tossed it, along with the others, into the laundry chute. She went back to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee. As she sat, looking around her designer kitchen and out the window into her perfectly landscaped backyard, she smiled. Look at all I’ve achieved, she thought. I earned all this. But, you never know. And, if someday it all gets taken away, at least I can still scrub a bathroom.
© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser