– Proust, you can have your madeleine.

Our friends were away on vacation, and Lydia was in charge of the cat and fish. She promised to daily feed and water the cat and clean its litter and occasionally to drop a few beads of food into the fish bowl.

One night I helped, and on another night — the last night of cat duty, in fact — I handled it myself. I followed Lydia’s instructions: pat and scratch Storm; refill dry food dish and replace water; scrape 1/3 can of wet food into wet food dish; play with Storm for a few minutes (mouse on string); sift solid masses out of litter cave and discard; wash hands. Easily done. (Interestingly, the cat seemed both to want and not want my company. Is that typical of cats?) Feed fish and otherwise ignore. Also easily done.

I tried once again to play with Storm, by dangling a strip of fabric near his nose. He walked away.

As I sat on the ottoman, not unhappily rejected, I noticed the dried kibble on the floor around the cat dish. I saw an electric carpet sweeper. I thought, “Who would want to come home to a messy cat?” With the sweeper I sucked up the scattered bits. Then I remembered the litter cave in the other room.

In the other room, I turned on the sweeper again and ran it over the floor and edge of the nearby rug. Satisfyingly, the grit whirred into the plastic, tick tick ticking like sand against a window pane. Bent over like that, vacuuming, suddenly time collapsed 30 years, and I was bent over, vacuuming like that, in a neighbor’s house I then cleaned weekly, for money. I experienced again the pleasure of being in someone else’s house when they’re not home, of leaning into the rhythm of a task, of restoring order, of hearing grit fly into plastic. Of the electric hum, and air.

This is still me, I thought. The vacuumer, the order-restorer, not in a hurry and at peace in someone else’s empty home.

3 thoughts on “– Proust, you can have your madeleine.

  1. I disdain most housework except in fits and flurries – I think that is why I am neat and organized, because I dislike it so. But there is something fun about cleaning someone else’s home and making it orderly. I know you and I share the same memories of babysitting (different families) and cleaning their homes – unasked – because to us, taking care of the kids meant also cleaning, tidying, and making ready the home for the next morning.

    If I were to babysit today, I can imagine even setting up the coffee pot and setting out the mugs for the next morning for the parents–I would like the pleasure of knowing they would appreciate the gesture.

    “Playing house in another home”

  2. Yes, playing house in another home. And also, being the creator of a “before and after effect” is very satisfying, too. I remember a house of a family we both knew, Emily, where the family kept those furniture throws on all their sofas and chairs, and how fun it was for me to smooth, straighten, and tuck those throws after their kids, whom I babysat, went to bed. (I think you were friends with one of the kids.) Every piece of upholstered furniture would then look like a blank canvas, full of potential.

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