Becoming Helga

May, 2013

I’ve just finished washing my kitchen floor for the third time—not in a year.  I’ve done all three times on my hands and knees in the last hour. I’m puffing and groaning and thinking about how those German haus fraus do it.

I’m not German, so I don’t come by this naturally. My mother hired a maid to do her house work and gave her a mop. She didn’t expect a hands and knees job in the 2oth Century.  But here I am, past the 2nd millenium by a decade and I’m doing this chore like an nineteenth century wunderfrau.

I always marveled at t the German adoration of cleanliness, t being in the Protestant Faith next to Godliness. One day a German-American woman dropped into my knitting circle I had the temerity to ask her if she had been taught to clean “the German way.”

“Of course!” she told all of us wide-eyed Americans sitting around the table “When I was six my mother began instructing me on how to clean.  What you Americans call ‘cleaning is just “neatening’ to us. Neatening is merely pushing the dirt around.  Real cleaning is different. When your done you can eat off the floor. Seriously.”

“First you  wipe or sweep the dirt away.  Then you fill a pail with water as hot as you can stand and soap. Drop in your washing cloth, wring it out and get started scrubbing.  You go over the floor once, dump the water, rinse the rag and start again. Water hot as blazes.

Soap. Scrub, Dump, rinse the rag.”

I’ve never gotten beyond doing this three times before my back and legs give out. By that time I’m gasping for a cold drink and a lie down.

“Keep going! My mother told me. You have to wash the floor until you wash the entire thing and the bucket of water is clear as when you began.  That’s a clean floor. You can dine on it.”

We all sit around the table, our knitting needles still with awe. Our mouths are making silent gasping movements. “you wash the floor until water is still clean?” I ask.

“Yes, that’s the German clean.” The woman tells me proudly.  “I can’t hire someone to clean for me here. I just have to go behind her and do it all again, my way.”

So when my own housekeep left, a victim of the foreclosure debacle, I decided to give the German method a try. Down on the floor using my best dishtowel—the one most like corduroy—I was becoming intimately acquainted with the crevices of my kitchen floor. Someone must be wearing hob-nailed boots  in my house to make those little half circle indentation in the linoleum. Yes, I still have the old fashioned stuff and I wish there was something softer on the knees. Did I recall correctly that German kitchens had slate stone floors? I can’t let myself engage in historical speculation in this position. I swipe my arm wide over the area normally inhabited by the dog’s water bowl.

“Ha! My husband laughed–“you’re becoming Helga. Just braid your hair and pin it up on your head. Howdy, Helga!”   He was laughing until he saw how beautiful the floor looked.  “Wow! You could eat off that floor.” He marveled.

I stood up, soapy hands on wet hips, proud, tired, Germanic. “Yup. You could.” Suddenly I began to have an inkling of what drove those Haus Fraus to do it—Admiration.

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