In the Olson household, Wednesday is cleaning night. It used to be Thursday but Ana thought doing it one day earlier would result in a higher overall level of cleanliness. It took me a while to understand the logic of that. Actually, I still don’t understand it.
In my experience, all Portuguese woman have a cleaning fetish. I know quite a few Portuguese ladies and without exception they love to keep things clean - themselves, their kids, their cars, and especially their houses. I know two Portuguese women particularly well – my mother-in-law Maria and my wife. They are the cleanest people I know.
Let me tell you about Maria. She cleans constantly. Their house is spotless. When we visit she will sometimes sneak away from the conversation and clean everybody’s shoes. It’s the only house I know of where you can put on a white glove, climb up onto the kitchen counter, run your fingers across the tops of the cupboards (that nobody ever, ever sees) and the white fingers will come back perfectly clean. I haven’t yet tried this, but you could probably do the same on the top of the furnace, behind the stove, inside the heating vents, and on any surface in the garage or shed. If she were a Marvel superhero, she’d be just like Wolverine except that instead of adamantium blades projecting out of her knuckles, it would be a vacuum on one hand and a damp cloth on the other. One time we had a few friends over and my in-laws stopped by for a visit. While we were standing on the driveway chatting at the front of the house Maria grabbed a broom and started sweeping the leaves and dead grass off the lawn. My friend Justin said he wanted to marry her.
So, Wednesdays. The kids and I have all been indoctrinated into the Portuguese cleaning culture and trained by Ana for years. But the standard is simply unattainable. Neither of the kids seems to have inherited the Portuguese Clean Gene, and my Scandinavian cleaning indoctrination was actually pretty good as my mom trained us three boys to clean toilets, wash dishes, vacuum carpets, but it wasn’t like we were ever able to roll sushi on the bathroom floor after cleaning and produce a hairless California roll.
Wednesday cleanings are not negotiable. One time a friend of ours offered us VIP passes and front row tickets to a Lady Gaga concert in Toronto. Damn thing was on a Wednesday. Ana told her no and I cried a bit. One other time these space aliens landed in Lion’s Park just down the road from us. The local chatboards blew up and all our neighbours rushed down there. The kids and I asked Ana if we could take a little break to go down and see the creatures. Ixnay on the extraterrestrials.
Now just because Wednesday is mandatory cleaning night, it doesn’t mean that everybody must be home to participate. It just has to get done. Recently, the kids have been suspiciously busy that night of the week. I think Magnus has been paying his colleagues at the restaurant for their Wednesday shifts. Stella finds all sorts of reasons to be unavailable on Wednesdays – work, school events, emotional disasters of her friends requiring her consoling presence. And the frequency with which critical school exams fall on Thursdays, requiring intense Wednesday evening preparation, invites some skepticism. So often it’s just Ana and I.
I usually start with vacuuming and I’ve developed a pretty good system. I jam in my earbuds, put on a playlist of metal music, crank the volume to max, then start sawing away on the downstairs carpet. I cover every inch of the floor with an elaborate and efficient pattern, leaving a mosaic of beautiful vacuum trail lines. Once I’m warmed up I start to have fun with the job. I’ve found the vacuum handle doubles as a fretless air bass, so when Primus comes up in the setlist all vacuuming stops and I’m instantly on stage. With a real fretless bass it’s tough to hit the notes exactly, but on a vacuum bass you can just nail it. Every once in a while Ana sneaks up and catches me with my eyes closed swinging my imaginary metal hair around, going snaky on the vacuum bass, getting absolutely no cleaning done, but grandstanding magnificently on the stage. The nice thing is with the earbud volume and vacuum noise I can never hear her yelling at me so don’t really notice, but if I do happen to open my eyes I’ll see here standing there pointing a toilet brush first at me, then the floor, then the vacuum, and I’ll grimace at her then rip off an incredible bass solo, hoping she’ll join in with some fancy rhythm strokes on her toilet brush guitar, but that never happens, so I’ll return to vacuuming until she leaves then pick right back up where I left off in the song.
When I finish the vacuuming I’ll move onto the kitchen. I have to be real careful in the kitchen because there’re a few things that absolutely have to get done right. First is polishing the toaster. I know that nobody else in the world ever cleans their toasters, but we do it weekly, and until I can see my reflection in it, I keep on polishing . I often end up spilling a pound of toast crumbs on the floor when I’m transporting it from the counter to the sink then tracking them all over the place after they stick to the bottoms of my sweaty feet, so I make sure to keep that vacuum air bass handy.
The second most important job is cleaning all the fingermarks off the stainless (what a joke that is…) steel fridge. That requires a whole roll of paper towel, a litre of vinegar, and a fine eye. You need to look at it from every angle because some smudges can only be seen from a certain point in the kitchen. And trust me; if I miss one, she will find it.
The counter must be crumb-free and you can only know you’ve captured them all if you squat down to eye level and scan the surface as you duck-walk around. The double sink requires intense scrubbing with Vim and man does that stuff sting the eyes. I should probably wear the heavy duty respirator and goggles I use for sanding the toxic bottom paint off our sailboat because that Vim stuff is probably just as deadly. By the time I finish my eyes are all watery and red and it looks like I’ve been smoking BC weed instead of doing my cleaning chores.
Lastly, the chairs from the kitchen table have to be meticulously scrubbed, especially Stella’s. Despite a decade of coaching, she has still not learned to lean over her plate when she’s eating so her chair is always stained with food that’s dropped from her fork or her mouth and greasy fingerprints where she’s wiped off her hands on the fabric. Magnus keeps insisting that we send her off to finishing school. I don't know where he even heard of finishing schools or if they still exist, but Stella wouldn't go anyway.
After pouring my heart and soul into cleaning, the same thing always happens – Acts of Sabotage. Ana will say, “Hey did you vacuum the stairs?” knowing damn well I already did. And though I can’t prove this, I think she keeps a satchel of sock fluff hidden in the house somewhere and she’ll sprinkle little bits on the carpets I’ve cleaned so that when she calls me over she can point at the fluff and say, “Well what’s this? Doesn’t look to me like you vacuumed very well.” Then she rips the vacuum from my hand, exhales a gigantic sigh, and starts re-vacuuming the house. At that point, I usually return to the kitchen to give the toaster one last polishing and I guard it until she returns to make sure she doesn’t plant a big fingerprint on it before final inspection.
But do I like having a clean house? Yes I do. The weekly ritual humiliation is a small price to pay for a house that that even the most germophobeous human could happily enjoy.