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From age 12 to age 14, I dusted and cleaned my grandmother’s home, and then, when she died suddenly from a Leukemia she didn’t know she had and her youngest son took over the house, I cleaned the home of my uncle and aunt.

It was contemplative work that suited my imagination and my twitchy little fingers. It was private, slow, peaceful. I am certain I wasn’t good at it. I was too dreamy and incompetent. I pursued the relaxing pleasure of cleaning, not the craft; also the money, passed from my aunt’s cold, thin hands to my own, then stuffed away in a pink Jasmine music box my dead grandmother had gotten me, before she died, back when it was still her house I was cleaning.

I moved blue and red glass collectables across doily-dressed tables and shelves. I sprayed pinesol and ran along the edges with old grey rags with perfectly shipped edges. I filled my grandmother’s great big green basin with water and suds, dunked cloth, swirled it around in the murk, and slapped it against the bathroom’s white octagonal tile and the kitchen’s square, brick-red laminate flooring. I fiddled with miniature teapots, and tiny dolls stuck to miniscule display shelves with sticky tack, removing the gray bits of grime that clung to them.

My grandmother’s home was a cramped, elaborately feminine cottage of a place. It was filled floor to ceiling, room to room with antique furniture (tables and chests and iceboxes), glass lamps that went aglow at the touch, tiny chairs with teddy bears in stuffy, fancy costumes, doileys of every conceivable shape, strange books about how to discuss sex with one’s grandkids (though we never had such a talk), purple and iridescent cocktail jewelry spilling out of glass boxes, and miniatures arranged tightly in tiny shelves.

She had an orange tabby, Sam, who’d showed up on a stoop in the rain one night before I was born; his hair littered the house. The carpets were well-cleaned, bleached white, and the couches she covered in sticky plastic. Everything was floral, with big pink flowers and mauve paisley: the upholstery, the wallpaper, the china. Cleaning her home was a fantastical and lavish burden, like organizing the cave of wonders. I loved it.

And she was patient. We finished our cleaning sessions with tea and cookies, or a piping hot grilled cheese, followed by a night of dancing and music. I hummed and swirled my skirt while her old Willie Nelson and Ray Stevens and Elvis and Jimmy Buffet cassetts played.

My favorite cassett of hers, though, was a single of Dixie Road by Lee Greenwood. My grandmother and I would listen to it ceaselessly, on a loop only broken by the whir of her cassett player’s rewind function. We’d listen to it in the car, singing out the windows, her hands in gloves on the wrapped leather cover of the steering wheel. We’d listen to it on the driveway, as we scrubbed old teacups and rinsed black mud from the pavement with a hose. We sang to it as she fried bacon, or while she put on her makeup. “An old barn needs more paint than a new one”, she explained — this was why I wasn’t allowed to dip my fingers in the beige and rouge, to adorn myself. And we listened to it in bed, lying head-to-toe, as I screwed with the adjustable options of the Posturepedic mattress.

And then one day she was sick on the floral couch of her living room. A cold, everyone thought or said. And the very next day, she died. Toothless and scared on a hospital bed with both her sons there and nobody else knowing what to expect. I was at home popping a pimple when I got the news.

And my grandmother’s boyfriend, who’d bought her all those treasures, set upon the house and took it all away. I heard he made a shrine for her , teddy bears and red glass lamps and longing and tears. He was handsome and square-jawed, like an older Harrison Ford, her favorite actor. I heard he could not bear his grief. I never saw him again.

My uncle inherited the house and moved in quickly, along with his wife, a British social worker named Nicola. They covered the flowers and paisley with layers of deep green and yellow paint. They brought in simple, cheap furniture and more bookcases, loaded with Nicola’s psychology and social work books. And then they called upon me to clean for them.

Nicola was good-naturedly mystefied by my whole family and its strange antics. She found her husband and my dad to be narcissistic and immature, which was a correct assessment. She judged our tempers to be excessive, but petty and non-threatening. This was mostly true. Our hillbilly antics intriqued her. Once, she ate a whole meal from a glistening, “clean” plate that it turned out my grandmother had just licked bare and not washed. I appreciated that when Nicola found out, she didn’t retch. I loved how she would gaze at my little sister as she stomped around the house in underwear, toy gun holsters, and cowboy boots, and declare with a laugh that something had gone wrong in her psychosexual development.

My aunt Nicola wanted me to clean the bathrooms and kitchen, so I got on hands and knees, spraying, wiping, rinsing, and sneezing from the lingering dander of my dead grandmother’s dead cat. I reached into narrow crevices and withdrew rags coated in dark grime; I worked over mildewy grout until it relinquished white insides. From the drains, I extracted coils of black and red hair. (Both my uncle and my dead grandmother were redheads).

I rinsed the scalloped innards of the clamshell-shaped sink, and buffed the mirrors with windex and newspaper. Sometimes I opened the bathroom closet and climbed up the shelves, resting my chin on the teal towels my grandmother had used, smelling the lingering odor of her perfume and soap. If I pushed aside the towel pile, I could glimpse the peeling flowered contact paper she’d once laid down. Or that her boyfriend had laid down for her, more likely.

What struck me on those visits was how swiftly and completely the house had been transformed. What once had been a cramped, white house coated in twisting flowers and piles of teddy bears and fancy glass was now a dark, bare, somewhat masculine space, stripped of frivolity and history.

My grandmother’s death was shocking, sudden, as is the Bohannon way. We always die quickly and vanish without a trace. It’s a curse. Even then my dad was certain he’d followed in her path, and in the path of his father, who’d dropped dead of a heart attack on the day he was supposed to move into the house I was cleaning. It was bought for him and my grandmother to share. He never made it. We never make it.

And so my uncle and aunt had covered up every vestige of the dreamy Southern belle my grandmother once was, and turned their home into a practical starter for a social worker and a public health official, blotting her tragedy out with cedar shelves and sensible books.

I was not good at cleaning this new, bare space. I was never good at cleaning period. Never figured out how to do much besides push the dirt around and get it wet. I daubed at stains with moist paper towels and tried to flush the gobs of hair and grease away, but no matter how many times I swiped at that same “clean” space, more dirt appeared in my hands.

It took me a long time to finish a room and move onto the next. I dreamed behind my eyes as the Ray Stevens hummed from the cassett deck. Then the collection was cleared out, and I had to listen to my aunt’s records: David Bowie, Kate Bush. Instead of fingering small bears and tiny porcelain dolls, I ran my palms over the spines of social science books, and found my newest calling there.

My grandmother’s home had been a place of imagination. We entered pretend worlds together, and spent whole evenings separated from reality, caught under a rainbow bubble of suds and glistening, lapidary, silly beauty. We had long philosophical discussions, and played games, and danced for hours on end. Now she was gone, and all of her trinkets with her, and eventually even her music, and then there was only one thing that could capture my interest.

My aunt’s copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

And so I left the world of pretend and waking dreams, and entered the world of psychology.

Originally published at

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