Cleaning Up on Christmas

When visiting your family becomes a chore


The last time I stayed with my father in Miami over the holidays, I made the mistake of thinking he was lonely. I had a bad habit of trying to decode his emotional state from external markers, in this case his threadbare green bathmat. Part of a towel set my parents acquired when I was seven or so, it had been in a sad state for more than a decade, but on my most recent visit the previous winter, it was covered with holes, actually disintegrating. Each morning before work, my father stepped out of the shower and wiped his feet on it. Evidently he did not register its lack of absorption, the feel of cold tile against skin.

My husband, Max, and I planned to stay with him for more than a week, into the new year, but to celebrate Christmas Day itself with Max’s family at his grandparents’ place a few miles away. As we started to finalize arrangements to open presents, have dinner, and in between take a walk to see the flock of wild peacocks his grandmother had mentioned in recent phone calls, the specter of the bathmat rose from my memories of the last visit. I couldn’t put it out of my mind.

My father had, to put it kindly, never been gifted at housekeeping, but I worried what it might mean that he was living this way, moving through his days with so little attention to the world around him. Was he depressed? Ill? Deteriorating? Although we weren’t always together at Christmas, under the circumstances I thought it might be cruel to spend the holiday with other people when I was in town.

At first Max seemed to believe I was attaching too much significance to this one neglected object of many in my father’s house, but as I returned again and again to the subject of the bathmat, describing its ruination in increasingly intricate detail, he too seemed concerned, or at least, to understand how alarmed I was. We agreed that I should spend the day with my father and join Max’s family for dinner.

I’d only been living in Brooklyn for a year and a half, but I’d already lost touch with so many realities of life in South Florida: the palm trees swishing in breezy parking lots, the lizards skittering up windows and walls, the Santa’s Enchanted Forest banners promising “over 100 rides and attractions!” all along US 1.

Max also grew up in Miami and, like me, had lived in other parts of Florida before we moved to New York. Neither of us really understood the city’s surreal appeal to outsiders until that Christmas morning of 2000, when we bundled ourselves in coats, scarves, and hats to catch a 6 a.m. flight from LaGuardia and emerged at the other end into a glorious seventy-degree day. After the pallor of the wintry northeast, the sky was so deeply blue, the grass so green, the hibiscus so brilliantly red and yellow and fuchsia, the whole panorama seemed almost obscene in its intensity. Outside my father’s house, potted calamondins that my mother had planted two decades before sagged with small orange citrus fruit too bitter to eat.

My father lived alone, on a posh Coral Gables boulevard canopied by banyan trees, in my childhood home. It was exactly the kind of address you’d expect a lawyer father to have. When my parents divorced, he drafted the divorce agreement in which his major financial concession was that he allowed my mother to take any of the furnishings she wanted. Mostly they were hers to begin with, or sofas and lamps and pretty knick-knacks acquired from Goodwill or garage sales, and she did take the majority of them. Because my sister and I were to split our time between his place and my mother’s, though, she left our beds, our nightstands, a small bookcase, and a cabinet. To my father she gave the massive wood desk and matching drawers in the study, and the bed they’d shared. Just about everything else she abandoned had little to no utility: the fake fireplace, the chairs that were always falling off their rollers, the billowy green-and-white canopy with the chandelier in the middle that hung in my parents’ room.

The house had since become the kind of place neighborhood kids pelted with eggs. During my first few years of college, the boys next door left a note apologizing for their vandalism, and when my father showed it to me, I couldn’t tell whether he felt gratified or angry or much of anything at all. It was a familiar uncertainty. Our own relationship was troubled and erratic; I had settled into a pattern of seeing him once or twice yearly. Sometimes, when I was visiting, friends who’d never been to his house before would come to pick me up for dinner or a movie or drinks. They’d look through the front windows at the glistening wood floors and deserted rooms, at the exercise bike parked in front of the massive wood-encased television, and think they had the wrong address. Strangers occasionally pulled into the driveway to ask if the place was for sale.

This happened less frequently at Christmastime, when my father set his miniature artificial tree on an end table in the front window. The few tiny lights that still worked winked on and off, signaling to passersby that there was life within.

I had grown accustomed to my father’s broken toilets and his charred toaster oven, to the Tupperware stacked two feet high across his kitchen counters, and the way he clapped his hand hard on my shoulder when he greeted me and then really clamped down. When we arrived at the house that Christmas morning, my father threw open the door. “Well, hey!” he said, gripping my deltoid, compressing my trapezius, as Max and I wheeled in our luggage. “Hey! Daddy missed you.” (He often spoke of himself in the third person.)

After Max left to join his family, my father and I went out for bagels. I don’t remember much about the meal except that my order prompted him to remind me that cream cheese is unhealthy, filled with fat and cholesterol. Back at his house, we opened our gifts. I’d had a new bath mat shipped to his place, but otherwise I’ve forgotten what we gave each other. What I do recall is that, not long after noon, he announced that he needed to get going. He was meeting one of his girlfriends for lunch. As he gathered his keys and his change and his wallet and then drove away in his new Lexus, I was a little stunned.

Not knowing what else to do, I went into the kitchen and started opening things. Large plastic boxes spread across the table held scores upon scores of vitamins. In the refrigerator were containers of nuts and berries and single servings of meals prepared somewhere else, possibly by a girlfriend, possibly by some sort of catering service for the health-conscious, but definitely not by my father, who didn’t cook. (He made coffee by boiling it with water for fifteen minutes in a pan and then pouring the resulting sludge through a strainer.) More containers, empty ones, were stacked across the counter, covering the stovetop. They reached almost to the bottom of the cupboards. A single small space remained, in front of the microwave. In fairness, there wasn’t much room in the cabinets themselves.

For years I’d held out hope that someone else would clear out all the junk my mother had left behind. Perhaps, I’d thought, my grandmother would visit and tidy things up, or one of his girlfriends would open the bathroom cabinets and notice the expired Dimetapp and decomposing foam curlers and musty barrettes and be moved to action. Perhaps my father himself would realize that he was no longer in need of three boxes of Flexi Straws and a jar of peanut butter that went bad in 1982. No one else would do it, I realized that day, and the mess was spreading. I decided to clean.

Before I left for college, my sister and I stayed at my father’s house three nights a week. After putting us to bed, he locked us in our rooms, with a key, from the hallway, so that no one could get in and we could not get out. Thirty minutes later, he would back the car out quietly, no headlights, and then start up the engine and drive away. The roar of his return came sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. In the mornings, after breakfast, he sent us home to our mother in a taxi.

In the years leading up to that Christmas, my room and my sister’s room were increasingly used for storage, our closets stacked, floor-to-chest high, with presents for clients, secretaries, and family members, all dated far into the future. Many of them probably contained Ralph Lauren robes and crystal clocks, discreetly marked “free gift with purchase,” or at least that’s what my sister and I used to receive, year after year, along with his holiday checks, until he stopped sending anything at all. By December of 2000, our presents had apparently been procured for the next six years. “No gifts for the girls!!” said a note in feminine handwriting on the top of a stack of future presents labeled with our names. “Until 2006!!!”

My sister had cut ties with my father long before, and his client files were slowly overtaking her room. Her bed had been pushed against the wall, and the piles, labeled “R” through “Z,” picked up from the ones covering the floor of his study. I could not make any of this right, but I could at least purge the junk.

I began with the pantry, which housed (among many, many other things) four ancient, half-eaten fruitcakes and about a thousand dead ants. The cabinets beneath the stove yielded a rusty colander, a dented Little House on the Prairie lunchbox, and, inside that, a Peanuts thermos without a lid. There were four or five blackened skillets with the protective coating ripped away.

In a drawer under the toaster I found an old dog collar, a box of hamster food, and assorted flea sprays, one of which had leaked onto an old church membership directory so that the back cover stuck to the drawer liner. When I finally pried the book loose, the remains of an enormous palmetto bug were fused to the underside of it.

On the refrigerator, a Happy Mother’s Day calendar I’d made in second grade hung just as it had for more than twenty years. I’d drawn a smiling girl, a tree, the sun, and a house with a chimney, its curlicue of smoke stretching high above everything else. Tossing this into the trash, I noticed my hands were sticky, my fingernails black. Again and again I washed them, over the course of that day, and still they looked like I’d been scrabbling around in a greasy chimney.

Stuffed bunnies and bears and piggies and cows—all gifts, I assumed, from my dad’s many girlfriends—lined the windowsill. He might not notice if a particular woman’s gift was missing, but she would. Leaving these untouched, I moved on to the bathrooms, to deal with dried-out shoe polish, prescriptions filled in 1979, and a humidifier that had never, to my knowledge, actually dispensed steam.

All through the day I worked, until Max called to say he’d soon be picking me up for his family’s big dinner. He was horrified to hear what I’d spent the holiday doing. Why hadn’t I called him, he wondered. I could have joined them for the peacocks, or for the spiced nuts his grandmother had made.

I’d actually forgotten it was Christmas. I stopped cleaning, and realized I’d filled twelve enormous black trash bags. As I lugged them to the pile, I noticed the neighbors’ kids standing in their driveway, laughing and talking with friends or family, showing off their new bikes. When I waved at the children, they did not wave back.

Setting the bags beside the street, my back aching, I started trying to anticipate my father’s reaction. Would he be grateful, chastened, touched? Would he—God forbid—lose his temper? I left a note, and all through dinner I was anxious, distracted, exhilarated. I can see now, though I could not see it then, that I hoped the purging of all this detritus would make room for something larger, for him and for us.

When Max and I returned to my father’s place, just before midnight, he came to the door in his robe. “Well, thank you!” he said, gripping my shoulder. “Daddy sure does thank you.” Then he bade us goodnight, and went to bed.

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