If there were an awards show for managing a home, my mother would be in the Hall of Fame. Tales of her fastidious cleanliness and exacting organizational skills are legendary among my siblings. Married at 19, she had five children under the age of 9 before she turned 30. Yet even with that many little ones, unexpected visitors to her home rarelyif everfound so much as a stray teddy bear on the floor, a book out of its alphabetized place on the shelf, a hint of dust on a table, a speck of fuzz on the carpet, a scuff mark on the kitchen floor or a little handprint on the avocado-green refrigerator door. She couldn't help it; it was in her blood. Her own fatheras demanding a taskmaster as ever livedran his finger over the top of the doorjambs in our home whenever he came to visit, checking for wayward dirt particles.
Every day had its duty, every month its own assignment. If sheet-washing day was Saturday, then those beds got turned on Saturdays, not a day before, nor a day after. One Friday morning, my two younger sisters were sitting at the breakfast table when my mother came through the kitchen, a large bundle of dirty sheets in her arms. Alarmed, they asked her what she was doing. "What does it look like I'm doing?" she answered.
"But Mom, it's Friday," they responded.
"Friday?" she asked, startled. "Are you sure?" She peered out from behind the sheets at the calendar on the wall. "Well!" she said, almost indignantly. "It is Friday!"
Off she went, back to the bedrooms, to put the sheets back on five different beds, only to remove them again 24 hours later. I swear it's true.
For decades, on the underside of every set of venetian blinds in her home was a small piece of paper with a date on it, allowing her to keep track of the last time the blinds and the windows had been washed. This is a woman who, through 50 years of marriage, five children, their subsequent marriages, 11 grandchildren, two of their marriages and, one month ago, the birth of her first great-grandchild, has dated and placed thousands and thousands and thousands of photos in albums, which sit ordered chronologically on a shelf.
Sadly, her three daughters didn't inherit this gene (though her sons did). While I keep a tidy home, I haven't a clue when my venetian blinds were last even dustedthough I do know how recently my kitchen windows got washed. It was the last week of January, while I was in Colorado on a business trip and my parents were in town, caring for my children.
Because I don't keep a meticulously clean home, the days leading up to a visit from my parents are spent in a frenzy of sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, polishing and washing. But there is always something I overlook, or don't quite get around to before their blue van pulls into the drive. Usually, it's the refrigerator.
The business trip to Colorado is an annual one, and my parents, bless them, come every year to stay with my children while I am gone. While my children are at school and my father putters around my house looking for things to repair (not a difficult search), my mother cooks, cleans and organizes, though always with a respect for my own seriously flawed methodology. When I get back, there is always that befuddling moment when I walk into my house and wonder where I am. I was particularly struck by this a couple of years ago, when I opened the refrigerator. My mother had obviously spent quite a bit of time, elbow grease and Fantastik on the task of cleaning out the interior. I was nearly blinded by the spotless white glare of the shelves and dumfounded by the jars and bottles of salad dressings, jams and condiments, wiped clean and placed in regimental formation in the interior door.
But that's not all. On the bottom shelf of the now sparkling refrigerator were two bags full of items; one she had marked "Expiration Date Passed" and the other, much fuller bag was marked "Expiration Date Illegible." Not sure if I was keeping the 5-year-old jar of sun-dried-tomato mustard for an experiment of some type, she had thoughtfully kept every item she unearthed in the dark recesses of every shelf; I tossed both bags in the trash and offered a silent thanks to my mom for still taking care of me, all these years later.
Considering her daily attention to detail, she hardly needs this reminder, but for me, possibly you and millions of communal office refrigerators all over America, please note that April 4-10, 2004, is National Clean Out Your Fridge Week. I haven't the foggiest notion who has mandated such a week be observed by the entire country, but the announcement of its existence came in a cleverly designed mailing written and distributed by the Glad Products Company and Whirlpool Home Appliances.
According to their research, Americans' refrigerators almost qualify as a national scandal, replete with uncovered drinks, bulk items left in their original packaging, willy-nilly organization, long-expired shelf dates, rotting produce, hazardous meat storage and enough leftover takeout food to feed a small nation. Among the regional and gender-specific statistics gathered from the cold crypts are these: 70 percent of Westerners have salsa in the fridge; ranch dressing is in 80 percent of refrigerators in the Midwest; 60 percent of men and women have ice cream in their freezers, but more men than women also have candy bars. Sixty-one percent of women have bottled water in the fridge, but only 48 percent of men, who apparently are saving the space for beer42 percent have at least one bottle or can of the beverage. The most common food found in refrigerators? Leftover takeout, which can be found, festering, in 93 percent of America's refrigerators.
I decided to localize the refrigerator report and inspected three: my own, the one in the Nashville Scene break room, and the B Shift fridge at Station 9 of the Nashville Fire Department.
My adult beverage selection is quite extensive: six types of beer, one citrus Zima (age and origin unknown), one bottle plum wine, one sake and one bottle of Korbel champagne. I have multiples on mustards, olives, capers, salsas, hot sauce, hoisin sauce, pickles, chutney, pesto, jellies, butter, barbecue sauce, maple syrup and chocolate syrup. Among the expired items: orange juice (2/22/04), two 32-oz. ricotta cheese containers (8/03 and 9/03), a vanilla yogurt (9/03) and one bag of very moldy grated cheddar (date worn off).
Interestingly, the same "Clean Out Your Refrigerator" tip sheet I had received was posted on the Scene fridge, and someone had obviously taken the advice to heart, as the interior was quite uncharacteristically almost free of disgusting items, with the exception of a half-full container of molded-over kung pao chicken, a Ziploc bag of rotten, unidentifiable cheese product and a yogurt that expired last September. There were six lunch bags, one leopard-skin case, a sticky Harry Potter lunchbox and countless microwave "lean" meals of some type. Among the beverages: an Original Reload Red Square with vodka and a Jack Daniels Hurricane Punch Country Cocktail. (What are my colleagues doing when they come to work?)
You would think my mother was on duty at Station 9. Each fire station shift (A, B and C) has its own padlocked refrigerators, and the B shift's fridge was immaculate, despite the fact that it is used by at least seven men for 24 hours every third day. According to engineer Stan Bailey, they clean it out every Wednesday they're on duty, or every three weeks. As one might expect of a food storage unit shared by so many, there were large or jumbo-sized containers of several things, among them: Blue Bonnet margarine, Martha White cornmeal, hot sauce, sweet and sour sauce, chocolate syrup, salad dressing, Kraft parmesan cheese and Country Bob's All Purpose Sauce. Among the leftovers, neatly sealed in Tupperware containers or Ziploc bags, were meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, white beans, roast and gravy. Fresh brussels sprouts and one tomato constituted the produce inventory. A bag of pre-shredded coleslaw mix had expired March 23, so it was tossed. One can of Reddi-Whip whipped cream was in the door shelf. In the freezer: one Nutty Buddy cone, a half-gallon of Purity butter pecan ice cream and three clean, completely empty Tupperware containers. Engineer Ron Phipps explained: "We keep them there so the other shifts don't steal them."