Dusting Memories

Some words change our lives. “You have a full scholarship.” “The cancer is in remission.” “You will be giving birth to twins.” The words loom in our minds all in caps, written with red ink in our dreams, influencing every decision once they have been spoken.

Maybe, in truth, all words change our lives in some way. None can be totally erased. One Saturday morning when I was cleaning the house (those were the days when the laundry was done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday and cleaning on Saturday), my 5-year-old son, as was his custom, followed me around insisting that he could help me. When I sat for a few minutes in the rocker to rest, he grabbed the dust cloth and “dusted” the coffee table for me.

After he swiped the cloth back and forth over the coffee table a few times, he grinned at me, delighted to be my helper. Always on the quest for a teaching moment, I brought him close to the coffee table and pointed out that he had missed a lot of spots. With my hand over his, we methodically moved the dust cloth back and forth until every inch was clean. I moved on to dust an end table. He wasn’t thanked for his help, didn’t get a hug or an “I love you.” Today I yearn to undo something that never happened.

A few minutes later on the landing of the stairs his 7-year-old sister was hugging him close and I overheard her say, “Don’t feel bad. Moms can see dirt that kids can’t.”

Why do those words stay with me? Why do I, after all these years, feel guilty? Did my son grow up to be a super house cleaner because of this incident? Did my daughter resent me forever because I was so insensitive that Saturday morning? When after 60 years I asked them about that day, both claimed to have no memory whatsoever of the incident.

Yet almost daily I think about that morning. Sometimes I try to recreate in my mind the arrangement of the furniture in that living room. Where was the sofa? Where was the coffee table? What were the kids wearing? What was I wearing? Where was my other daughter?

Individual words are like tiles on a Scrabble table — difficult to evaluate until they are put together in a sentence. “Don’t feel bad. Moms can see dirt that kids can’t.” Leave out a couple words and we get, “Moms feel bad when kids don’t see dirt.”

No, that’s not it at all. “Kids feel bad when moms see dirt.” There’s no way to erase the fact that my son didn’t see dirt and felt bad.

There’s no way to erase the fact that my daughter believed that moms can see dirt that kids can’t.

This I believe is a nugget to pick out of this moment in the past. Do we have a universal truth? A NASA scientist sees the landscape of the moon when a romantic couple is only basking in its light. An X-ray technician sees a broken bone when the patient only feels pain. A good cook knows that a pinch of thyme gives a special touch to his soup while the typical customer just knows the soup tastes good.

How sentences are constructed can irritate our souls like scratches from cactus thorns, but can also soothe our souls like the softness of goose feathers. Whether one shrinks from the irritation or embraces the soothing depends entirely on the arrangement of the scrabble of dictionary words.

Socrates is believed to have said, “There is no solution; seek it lovingly.” The “no solution” part I comprehend. Sometimes anger or frustration or guilt triggers the search, so I try to convince myself to forget the problem. But why did my daughter think I could see dirt that was invisible to kids?

“The unexamined life is not worth living” is also attributed to Socrates. Now I ask you, the reader, “Do a few unforgettable words constantly bobble into your consciousness?” Remember: Even after a lifetime of examining there is no solution. Giving up the search, however, makes life not worth living. Never mind; the coffee table was dusted.

Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.