I grew up in a pristine home. I don’t mean to say that it was fancy — it wasn’t — but it was spotless from the fan blades down to the baseboards. This was no easy feat, considering our house was a century old and so had the unique ability to create dust after you had just wiped down that surface (whatever that surface happened to be).
Even still, those ugly faux-brick linoleum kitchen floors (and the blonde wood that later replaced them) were literally clean enough to eat off of — and that was all thanks to my German mother.
Thinking back to the house I grew up in, I remember the orderly lines the vacuum cleaner made (and tiptoeing around them to try to make them last as long as possible); those improbably sparkling linoleum kitchen floors; the faint whiff of bleach when I opened the refrigerator; and the crisp feel of my starched and ironed sheets when I tucked into bed.
There were times when my mother’s rigidity irked me — when I had to instruct house guests take off their shoes or when, as a teenager, I got into cooking and, with every grease spatter or accidental flour spill, I could sense my mother’s rising panic — but mostly, I appreciated this clean existence. After all, messes weren’t strictly verboten; that’s what the great outdoors were for (so long as you agreed to be hosed down before entering).
As an adult, I like to think I keep a pretty clean home. Of course, judging myself by my mom’s standards, I have a long way to go. But I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things from her oh-so-German Putzfimmel, or “cleaning fixation.”
1. It’s better (and easier) to clean sooner rather than later.
I can’t remember my mom ever leaving the kitchen a mess at night. Our post-dinner routine was for her to clean up while I sat at the kitchen table or, in the winter, in a chair with my feet on the open door of the oven, and did my homework. She would load the dishwasher, clean and dry anything else, and wipe down the countertops; sometimes she would give the floors a quick sweep.
The next day, when we stumbled downstairs, sometimes at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. to make it to morning swim practice, there weren’t pots and pans cluttering up the sink — just a dishwasher full of clean dishes ready to be put away or used for breakfast.
In my own life, there are certainly times when, blurry-eyed and far from bushy-tailed, I go to make coffee only to find yesterday’s grinds in my French press, or the Dutch oven I used to cook last night’s chickpeas with a crusty ring of residue. But I definitely make an effort to clean up sooner rather than later, even — especially — after a big dinner party. That mess isn’t going to get any better overnight; in fact, it’s probably going to get worse.
My mom’s first step, and mine, is always to concentrate and organize the mess: Everything comes in off the dining table and into the kitchen. Leftovers get packaged up and put in the refrigerator, scraped into the trash, or (in my case) fed to the dog. Dirty dishes go here to be rinsed, then loaded; those that have to be hand-washed go there with either a clean dishtowel nearby or (even better) a cleaning companion with a dishtowel in hand to dry and put those items away. Everything gets wiped down, last of all the sink (including the faucet and basin), and if I’m feeling really ambitious, I may fill the kettle and set out the beans and grinder to make tomorrow’s coffee come that much faster.
2. A good vacuum is everything.
The secret to keeping your floors really clean, whether they are wood or carpet or concrete or something else, is to keep the dirt out. When I was growing up we had a check-your-shoes-at-the-door policy and, for a while, I had this approach, too. Getting a dog (and then another) changed this. If you’re a pet owner, you know that whatever dirt your shoes track in is nothing compared to the things that come in and the hair that comes off your furry friends.
So when I turned 30, I asked my parents for a Miele Cannister Vacuum Cleaner. I’m not going to lie — it’s not cheap. At $600 it’s one of the most expensive things in my home. But it is completely worth it. I use it to clean basically everything — floors, baseboards, window sills, couch cushions, throw pillows, and even my stove and countertops. It is my first line of defense against dirt, dust, and dog hair.
3. Don’t forget to clean underneath your rug (and behind your refrigerator).
As I kid, I remember watching my mom vacuum the area rugs that covered the floors on the first floor — in the living room, dining room, and eventually the kitchen. When she finished vacuuming the top, she would go around and flip up the corners of the rugs, and then vacuum underneath where, I can almost guarantee, dirt builds up unbeknownst to you.
Confession: This isn’t something I do all the time. It’s more of a deep-cleaning situation. And I recently learned (from mom, of course) a way to take this technique one step further. Vacuum your area rug as usual, then flip the whole thing over and vacuum the underside. Finally, flip it right-side-up and give it one more pass with the vacuum.
If you don’t have area rugs, there’s still something to be learned here. The bigger takeaway is that dirt hides in places you might not think of — behind your refrigerator, beneath your sofa, and in the cluster of cords from your electronics.
4. Sometimes you have to get down on your hands and knees.
From rubber gloves and scrub brushes to Swiffers and Roombas, the cleaning world is full of tools that allow you to distance yourself from the dirt and the grime. Besides a broom, a makeshift mop (made with a mop handle and a dishtowel), and a vacuum, my mom’s arsenal of tools was limited to sponges and rags. Elbow grease was the secret to her success — and it is my guiding principle too (even if it means getting down on my hands and knees to scrub that stubborn stain from the floor).
Not to get too wooey here, but there’s something about really cleaning something with your hands and whatever detergent of choice, getting deep into the dirt and grime, and seeing the sparkling results up close and personal that is profoundly satisfying. Maybe it’s just the German in me, but when I’ve given my house a really good hands-on clean, everything is right with the world. Alles ist in Ordnung.
5. Imperfection is normal.
With apologies to my mother, I’m going to air a dirty little secret. There was one room in the house that wasn’t clean: the laundry room. It was in the part of the basement that my nephew calls “the yucky basement” (i.e., the unfinished part) and, like its surroundings, always seemed to be in a state of chaos: endless baskets full of my dad’s white undershirts and black socks, towels and bathing suits that reeked of chlorine (all three kids were swimmers), a rusting sink that was possibly as old as the house, half-full bottles of laundry detergent.
Here was an area where my mom was not perfect — and there’s a lesson in this, too. Everyone has something, be it a laundry room or a junk drawer, where Alles ist nicht in Ordnung. And that’s okay.