Dust in the Wind

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, May 27, 2007

"I just had to call you, because I made a joke at work about a commercial for Endust. It got me thinking: Who dusts? I don't dust. I was telling people at work this. They dust. Do you dust? I don't think you dust. I'm almost sure you don't. But I need a little support in that not everyone dusts! Do you remember dusting with Mom? I do remember doing that. But I don't dust. Oh, well. Goodbye."

A voice mail from my sister Claire. First of all, no. Of course, I don't dust. Who dusts? That Claire even called to verify my position on this matter is a kind of compliment, because it means that she allowed for even the vague possibility of me as a duster. But therein lies a conundrum: If being thought of as a person who dusts is a compliment, then I therefore value the dusters of this world, and yet I choose not to be among them. So what does that say about my own sense of self-worth?

See, with all the time it has taken me to get emotionally twisted up with this nonproblem of a problem, I could have just dusted.

(Second of all, a joke about Endust? My sister needs better material.)

I think about the people who work with my sister, none of whom I've ever met, and I think they are neurotic. This is a busy pediatrician's office, so they're all working hard, answering phones from frantic parents, listening to coughing babies, sticking needles into the arms of children who fear them more than polio itself. They do all this. File. Clean up. Fight with pharmacists. Find lost charts. Listen to parents brag about burps. They do all of this. And then they go home and . . . dust?

It's weird. It's unnatural. So I'm going to have to place these folks in a special category, because my own anecdotal evidence suggests that they are rare. I don't know anyone who dusts.

Seriously. I've made some calls. People fall into one of three categories: 1) Those who never dust and don't want to talk about it. 2) Those who used to dust but who now farm the job out. 3) Those who dust only on an emergency basis.

As for the habitual, take the rag to the coffee table once a week duster, I find not one among my circle of friends and colleagues. Most of them, like me, fall squarely into category No 3. If the living room gets unbearable, or if company is due, I'll grab some Lemon Pledge and have at it. I am always surprised to find the job so thrilling. The satisfaction of removing a film of particulate matter off a TV is almost as good as peeling Elmer's Glue off your entire palm, as we kids loved to do. Peeling, removing, wiping clean. A new beginning!

There is a tinge of actual joy associated with the act of dusting, so why don't I do it more often? I'm sure, like all things, it is my mother's fault. She was a wonderful duster, as were nearly all the women of Lorraine Drive, where I grew up. (I don't recall ever seeing a man dust until I got married, and yet even my Mr. Tidy Pants is not much for this sort of thing.) In our neighborhood, you had the people who used Pledge and the purists who worried about waxy buildup. My mother was the latter. This always bothered me. I wanted to be Mrs. Hampton's kid, because everyone there sprayed Pledge with abandon. But at our house it was just: rag. Rag, rag, rag.

My mother was boring. Mrs. Hampton, with her shiny, filmy furniture smelling of lemons, was fun. But so, for that matter, was Mrs. Kerman, the old lady across the street with all the poodles, the only person I knew back then who didn't dust. I used to visit her. (Well, her poodles.) She would offer me butterscotch. The fluted candy dish was always dusty, as was everything that wasn't covered by a doily. I remember, even back then, thinking it was sad. A dusty house was . . . sad. Neglected. I associated dust with being old, giving up, checking out of the society everyone else was managing to keep up with.

There is dust in my house. I don't think of it as sad. I don't think of myself as old. I have two young children whose only dusting awareness is panic-related. Quick! Company is coming! We gotta clean this joint up and pretend we are . . . neat people! The thing is, on regular days, I don't notice the dust. There is too much else to notice. In the end, I think this is why dusting has become so quaint. A vestige from the old days. It isn't about time. It isn't about working moms. It isn't about gender or class or self-esteem. It's about focus. It's about the tiny things we no longer see. Dust has become microscopic, same as scuff marks on shoes (that you can just throw out) and wrinkles on shirts (a violation of our rights in a post-permapress world), disappearing in the way of all small acts of caretaking.

It makes me wonder what else I'm not tending to. It makes me think that if I started dusting I might awaken to a world of possibilities.

Then I think: Nah.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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