My first father-in-law was a printer, a craft passed down from his grandfather to his father and then to him. He was a quiet and unassuming man, a counterpoint to his bride, who was loud and laughing and cheerfully social. Edgar Hord went about his life in a peaceful manner, seemingly unfazed by the bright storms his bride whipped up. They interacted in lovingly teasing ways, especially about Edgar’s habits towards his job. He worked nights for the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two daily newspapers that were printed in the same building. Edgar was in the habit of going to work two hours before he was to sign in. When asked what he was doing, so long before he was due to clock in, his bride always interjected,“Dusting.”
In her memoir, The Tender Land: A Family Love Story, Kathleen Finneran wrote of falling asleep and waking to the sight and sounds of her mother’s dusting. “My mother ends each day this way, dusting in the dark, and in the morning, as soon as she wakes, she dusts again, in daylight.” In a family broken and blasted by suicide and depression, her mother tells her that dusting is one of the ways she combats her own bouts with depression: “I just feel better when I dust.” I have a good friend who has elevated house-cleaning to a high art, one that she practices with skills honed on the stones of some real or imagined criticisms of the state of her house. When her daughter enlisted me in the crafting of a surprise party for her mother, I was hesitant. “You really want to surprise your mother with 20 people crashing her house?” The rare times that I — one of her best friends — have managed to surprise her with a visit, I have taken the chance that she might refuse me entry, and when admitted, watched her clean all four of her spotless toilets. She chases dust that the average eye cannot detect, and spends many of her waking hours sweeping, wiping, and dusting. When I cook in her kitchen, she takes the knife I’ve just used to carve the chicken and washes it, reaching for the serving fork I’ve just laid down as she places the knife in the drying basket.
In my little apartment, there are more than a thousand books, years of newspapers, hundreds of tchotchkes, boxes and cans of markers, pens and pencils, reams of drawing paper, every sketch and scribble made by my children and grandchildren and on every surface, horizontal, vertical and oblique, a coat of dust. I devote brief bursts of energy to the movement of that dust, whole clouds of which will flee from my vaunted dusting cloth and settle onto another, nearby surface. Moving the dust in my apartment is a half-hearted event, and I happily concede defeat at the beginning of each tilt.
I do not know what comforts my friend finds in an immaculately clean house, or what she may be chasing away with the dust that she moves — surely not the depression Finneran’s mother smothered with her rag — but but as she follows after her guests with a dust cloth, swiping and wiping and cleaning, I see her immersion in the comfort of the repetition of a task well-known. As for my father-in-law, his quiet joy was demonstrated nightly as he dusted, looking for the order in his workspace that helped to prepare him for the application of the skills from his father, which he gifted to his bride and his daughters, with a fine dusting of love.