Just read Blue Girl’s latest, in which she tells of an encounter with her Mother-in-Law and how said MiL always asks an out-of-the-blue question before even saying hello, every single time they meet up or talk on the phone.
My mother does something similar to this, except I always know what question she’ll ask. It’s the same every time.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
I’m always glad when I’m in the middle of doing something actually constructive when she calls. Then I can say, truthfully, “Hi Mom! I’m scrubbing the toilet!” Or “Hi, Mom, I’m just washing up dishes.”
Unfortunately, I’m usually not doing much that’s very constructive, at least to my Mom. Which leaves me grasping for something to say. I don’t like to lie, so I say, “Oh, nothing much. What are YOU doing?”
And we move on from there.
I’ve given some thought as to why the “What are you doing?” question always zaps me. See, as I was growing up, my Mom never sat around. She always had something constructive to do. She was scrubbing floors or vacuuming carpets or getting dinner ready or cleaning bathrooms. If she wasn’t doing that, it was her job to make sure that I was doing something constructive myself. This could take the form of “Clean your room up.” Or, “get that upstairs cleaned up.” Sometimes it was “Have you done your homework? Go do it.”
I’m sure she had some downtime. Everyone needs that from time to time. When I was living with her, I was gone most of the day in school, so for all I know, she flopped on the sofa when Dad headed off to the office and my sister and I caught the school bus and watched soaps all day, only to leap up and start toothbrushing the corners five minutes before we got home.
Yeah, I’ll bet that’s how it went.
Anyway, living with the neatnik that was my Mom left me, as an adult, with terrible guilt if I’m not doing something constructive. That means if she calls now and catches me perusing Sprawling Ramshackle Compound instead of steam-cleaning the linoleum, or reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses instead of rearranging the Dreaded Pantry, I’m fucked.
Mom claims she’s not a neatnik anymore. She doesn’t make her bed every morning (I believe this is a healthy, truly a heroic swipe at the regimented Housework Mantra she’s lived with all her life). She insists her house is a mess. Well, I’ve seen her place. Her everyday surroundings are immaculate. I look for dust and can’t find it. Everything is in its place. And it’s like that whenever I visit, even unannounced.
My place, on the other hand, is a jumble of clutter. The floors are not clean. There is dust. There is floating doghair. My bed gets made every other day or so. Believe it or not, this is a vast improvement over the last 34 years of my life as an independent adult. When Mom is coming over, I go into a frenzy of last-minute Housewifery, I dust, I vacuum, I put away all the stuff that’s laying around. I know it’s not enough. I know that when nshe walks in, she’ll smell the dead stuff in the fridge that’s been there too long, the unmopped floor and the dogsnot-smeared slider. My kitchen is almost always clean, but it is not and will never be clean enough to match her standards.
I know she’s just dying to shriek, “Clean your room!”
Our perception of “constructive” is just different, that’s all. For me, “constructive” activity is any activity that occupies my mind and teaches me something new. It can be reading the news on the Intertubes or making yet another attempt at the Great American Novel. It can be fiddling around with haiku verses or laughing out loud at a Daily Show clip. Once in a while, “constructive” is synonymous with “housework” but that’s rare. Housework bores the living daylights out of me. While I enjoy a clean house, and I’m inordinately proud of myself if I achieve it, as a daily activity I find it severely lacking. I can always, always find something I’d rather be doing.
Before I was unemployed, Mom’s question “What are you doing” didn’t bother me. I worked 10 hours a day, often many more than that, and my at-home time was filled mainly with trying to find something to cook for dinner, or grocery shopping, or doing the laundry for the next week. I couldn’t not do those things. The house might be a mess, but I had an excuse, then, since I was working for money 50-60 hours a week.
Now, I haven’t got that excuse. Each day comes to me wide open. What will I do today?
Send out resumes. Go to a doctor appointment. Stop by the country vegetable shack up the road for fresh tomatoes and cukes, apples and broccoli. Read my favorite blogs. Write. Write. Write. Climb the long driveway to the mailbox. Pay bills. Think up something for dinner and get started on it with plenty of time during which to enjoy the process. Pet the cat. Feed the dog. Inquire as to Mr. Wren’s general health and mood, and adjust my comments accordingly. Read. Load the dishwasher and start it.
Note that with the exception of loading the dishwasher, housework isn’t on the list.
At 51 years old, I’m still the rebellious daughter, the one who just won’t tow the line. And when Mom calls to ask what I’m doing, the 18-year-old who moved out for good, finally having had enough of being told to clean her room, is the one who answers the question. And she’s humiliated if she can’t think of anything to say except, “nothing much.”
I always used to wonder when I’d finally grow up and feel like an adult. I don’t wonder any more. Now I know the answer is “never.”