After her second husband wore out like a fan belt,
my Polish grandmother moved in with us. So I had to sleep
in the living room, and wash my hands a hundred times
a day. I gave up eating chicken after watching her surgically
dismember a freshly slaughtered carcass in the kitchen sink.
One Saturday morning, I found her hands and knees on the
bathroom tiles, stretching behind the toilet bowl to roust out
the dirt that nobody ever sees. Shmutz, she called it, and there was
no mistaking the anger in her voice as she spat out the word.
That implacable foe had pursued her from Bobruysk to this
orderly suburb in the New World and wasn’t to be confused
with more commonplace stains that could be easily scoured away.
When she cleaned house, the rooms stank of ammonia,
the floorboards burned with a polished glaze, the toilet shone
like the Holy Grail. But she knew in her heart that shmutz still
remained, metastasizing in some nook or corner, mocking
her best efforts against it. Why not just leave it there if it wants
so badly to stay? At least that’s what I thought at the time.
Older now, in a house of my own, I’m ceding territory
inch by inch, day by day, as her old enemy marshals its forces
against me, spreading into every crack and crevice,
into dreams even, where the unfinished past is never
done with us, but always just beginning.
Max Westler directed the creative writing program at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, indiana. Now retired, he lives with his wife Robyn, three cats, and one dog in Lawrence, Kansas.