I flip on the bathroom light. Everything looks fine if I just stand here in the doorway, but a closer look tells a different story. A faint brown ring encircles the bathtub, flecks of toothpaste cover the sink faucet, streaks of soap smear the burgundy tile countertop, and there is a funky smell coming from the toilet. I enter with a bucket full of cleaning supplies in one hand, a mop in the other, and cloths and sponges stashed in both pockets of my trusty yellow apron.
I’m here to tackle the grime of everyday living.
I twist the dial next to the light switch and the overhead fan whirrs above me. Experience tells me to take on the toilet first because the cleanser will need time to do its work.
I spray pine and vinegar scented bubbles into every crevice on the entire toilet, even the knobby plastic bolt covers that anchor the device to the floor. Anxious to get away from the filth, I spin around to the tub. The plastic bath toys have been sitting here for a while–long enough for stagnant water to fester into bits of creepy black goo. I kneel to remove the remaining water from squirting sea creatures before I erase the brown crud from the tub. I can’t escape filth. After squeezing three crabs and an octopus, a piece of sludge dislodges and shoots from a plastic dolphin mouth splattering across my apron, narrowly missing my white t-shirt. I am simultaneously disgusted and relieved. Keeping white laundry white is harder than rocket science. I can never know for sure what will come out of the creatures that frequent my bathtub. The apron is non-negotiable.
Next, I turn to the sink, looking forward to doing the satisfying work of restoring the gleam to surfaces made of materials meant to shine. As I pass the blue scouring pad around the basin, I can feel the rough, caked-on scum disappear into smooth cleanliness. Euphoria ends as my sponge skids over the ragged edges of a giant rusting gash in the white enamel. I hate this sink. It always reminds me of the things I can’t have. No matter how hard I scrub, it will never be completely smooth and clean. I wish we could replace it, but it’s not on the landlord’s priority list. Amid the despair over my inability to make the stupid sink shine, I catch a glimpse of my cheerful yellow apron again and remember my grandmother and great-grandmother who wore it before me. A twinge of shame pierces my heart as I consider that my parents, grandparents, and great-grands were homeowners long before they reached my current age. My lack of homeownership must mean I am doing something wrong.
I rummage through the bucket of supplies for a stronger cleaning agent, and the shame I feel gives way to apathy. I realize that every single place I’ve lived my entire life has belonged to someone else. Landlords, parents, and my mother’s womb have all provided one of my most basic needs, but with it came the requirement to adhere to another person’s rules and wishes.
“You can’t have pets because they will scratch the floors and stain the carpets.”
“You must keep the landscaping neat and tidy, or pay extra rent for a lawn service.”
“You are not allowed to paint or hang anything heavy on the walls.”
“You have to clean your room before you can have friends over.”
“For heaven’s sake, don’t kick me there.”
Even though it is nice not to be responsible for replacing the furnace when it fails or to repair a window shattered by a burglar’s bat, I wonder if caring for a home belonging to someone else is a lost cause.
This sink doesn’t belong to me, so why should I care to make it shine?
I fiddle with the strawberry-red apron strings coming loose from my waist. A daydream fills my mind.
What is it like to have freedom to make decisions without first gaining the approval of another party?
I stand up and reach for a cloth tucked in a pocket and notice the vintage fabric is tearing away at the fifty-year-old seam.
Perfect. Add it to the list of Things-I-Have-to-Take-Care-of-But-Wish-I-Didn’t-Have-To.
Hey weirdo! You’ve been complaining of not having enough responsibility, and now you are frustrated you have to fix something? Newsflash, sister, responsibility comes whether you want it or not. You have to care about all of your crap, even the rented and inherited kinds.
I pinch the specks of blue scouring pad sticking to the snaggy edges of the gouge in my old rented sink as I wax philosophic. The soft fabric of the apron soaks up the water that pools on the counter’s edge.
None of it has ever belonged to me, or to any of us for that matter. Yet, we are responsible for providing stewardship and care.
Such is life. Stewardship is a human principle. We are all temporary tenants in this world, inheriting everything good, bad, and ugly left to us before passing it on to those who come after. It just matters what we choose to do with the stuff when it is our turn to manage it.
I look up from the rusty wounded sink and see myself reflected in the toothpaste-free mirror. I inherited this cheerful yellow apron with red strawberries from my grandmother, who inherited it from my great-grandmother. This garment represents a legacy of hard work endured by those men and women who went before me–people who exist to me as fabrications of second-hand memories. They were people who lived by the notion that things, no matter how small, were hard to come by. They felt the cost associated with every item they wanted to possess. Parting with money was hard. No doubt, the things they owned came the old-fashioned way—through blood, sweat, tears, and doing things that needed to be done regardless of desire.
I think of Great-Grandma as she sat down to construct this humble apron and wonder about the circumstances that lead to its creation. Perhaps she made it to replace one that was threadbare, patched, and beyond saving? Maybe, like me, she jammed the pockets full of odds and ends accumulated from her rounds through the house? Clothespins, hairpins, tissue, and Legos. No, probably no Legos graced these pockets when she wore them. She, too, might have been frustrated by busted seams. Still, she would have mended what was broken rather than toss it in the garbage and pout about not having the best and most durable item money could buy.
Remembering the past is a buoy in a storm. With renewed perspective, I get back to the task at hand. The way a shoe-shine boy buffs a mirror-like finish into leather, I grab the lime green polishing cloth and shine the chrome faucet to a brilliant gleam–minus the spit. I clean this bathroom, not to impress anyone, but to serve the needs of my family. It doesn’t matter if I own it because caring for it is the right thing to do. This is my home, after all, even if someone else’s name is on the deed.
The past illuminates the present, and I cinch the wise old apron strings a little tighter around my waist. I remember I am part of a legacy of hard work that girds, protects, and prepares me to take on the challenges that await–to say yes to the responsibility of stewardship. And now for the toilet, and then a needle and some sunny yellow thread.
Jenni Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food, and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home, and you can also find her on Instagram.