In my childhood home, cleanliness was not next to godliness. It reigned supreme. There was a sense of peace, of being saved somehow, if the shower was wiped down, if the cutting boards were scrubbed, if the table was set by freshly washed hands.
As a child, I could never understand why “Thou Shalt Wash Thy Hands After a Trip to the Bathroom” was not included in the Ten Commandments.
It certainly didn’t start with my parents. This “clean gene” was passed down through the generations like a family Bible. But for all of us, it has caused pain as well as comfort. My sweet, easy-going grandmother once declined to join a cooking group at her nursing home. The other residents enjoyed making their own creations in the large kitchen and then sharing their lasagna, salad or chocolate-chip cookies during lunch.
We finally asked Grandma, who had never met a stranger, why she wouldn’t attend the lunches. “Because they don’t wash their hands and then they put their hands in the food,” she said, shuddering at the thought. “I just can’t stand to think about all those fingers in the food!”
When I heard that, I realized why I was always repulsed at dinner parties when the hostess went straight from using the bathroom to
tossing the salad without first hitting the soap and water. I was witnessing the breaking of my family’s Number One Commandment, yet
there was no socially correct way to suggest salvation. “Care to read this little tract on how you can save your soul with a little Irish
Spring?” seemed to be a bit of a dinner-conversation stopper.
Especially since becoming a mom (who’s trying to raise a son who washes his hands after going to the bathroom — but isn’t a germ freak), I’ve often wished my cleanliness radar wasn’t quite so finely tuned;
that I could join others who just blissfully munched away, regardless of an occasional host’s doubtful acquaintance with soap and water. A friend in college made legendary guacamole, which was always requested at parties. But on a particular night, she’d played huggy-kissy-face with her golden retriever before plopping her hands into the bowl of ripe avocados and mixing in the tomato and garlic by hand.
That night, I stuck to salsa. But as I smelled the heavenly aroma of garlic and avocado and watched my friends devour the guacamole, indifferent to the role the dog had played in preparing the evening’s
refreshments, I was envious. I wanted to eat that guacamole. But I didn’t.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m at a crossroads. I want so much to pass on to my son my husband’s sense of humor, my love of writing, his gift for understanding math, my recipe for green chile stew. But I’m torn when it comes to passing on the family religion. It’s a gift that can be used for good or evil; a gift that can encourage good health — but can also make the world’s most sociable grandmother miss out on a fun afternoon.
So I’m searching for a middle ground. I discourage my son from coming home from baseball practice and immediately heading for the fridge without first hitting the sink. If I have a daughter some day (not likely at this point, but just sayin’), I’ll teach her how to hover above a public toilet seat (and flush with her foot). I’ll probably even scrub an occasional cutting board. But I’ll want my kids to know, too, that life will go on even if it gets a little messy. That dog kisses probably never killed anyone.
And that sometimes it’s best to stop and do more than just smell the guacamole.