Kopi with Bertha: Days when I went on my hands and knees

Dec 18, 2016 10.00AM |

by Bertha Henson

IF YOU thought the headline was about me grovelling for readers to become a TMG patron, you’re only half right. This is about housework. I despise the mop; I prefer a wet cloth to clean my floor.

Now those of you who are long in the tooth or already toothless would have been taken aback at news earlier in the week that schools are making cleaning the school premises compulsory for their charges. Yes, we did it as a matter or course, or time-table, way back in the days. We were rostered to dust, sweep and make sure the blackboard (not white board) was wiped clean; that the chalks are there and the duster, dusted. And there was gardening duty too.

I can’t believe we now need a whole class of 30 students or so to do five-minute cleaning; unless the classroom is so terribly dirty. Looking at the photographs published in Straits Times, I can see the children are having fun.

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Still, I can’t help but wonder if they are doing the cleaning right. Are they merely shifting the dust from place to place? Do they know there is a technique to wielding a broom?

Do they know that a damp cloth is better than a feather duster for lifting dust? Do they know they should dust first, sweep later? 

Hopefully, they are told proper cleaning techniques by their teachers who know about sweeping and not just how to operate a vacuum cleaner or give orders to the domestic help. Nobody can say it isn’t good to imbue our children with such practices. Okay, one unnamed mother did so but I’ll come to that later.

With the maid in place, parents seem to think it’s enough to get their children to bring their dirty dishes to the sink. What about getting them to wash them? But that’s what the maid is employed for, right? Who makes the children’s beds in the morning or is this something to be taught during National Service when Ah Boy hits 18? I cannot forget an anecdote I was told about a junior college student who was staying temporarily in a university hostel and complained to the administration that her stuff got wet because nobody shut her windows…

I am glad I was brought up with good cleaning practices. Members of my extended family were rostered for household chores. My brother was always arrowed to run to the market if we were short of ingredients.

An uncle had to cook rice at 4pm sharp. Now, rice then isn’t rice now. There are weevils, insects and other stuff that had to be picked out. Rice water was dirty, not enriching. My uncles took turns to do the ironing – which sometimes included starching.

Me, I was the kitchen slave who washed and dried dishes, so much so that my parents’ friends thought I was the family maid when they held parties in the house.

For a while recently, I employed a maid for my mother and had to stop myself from doing the dishes in her house. It felt odd to continue sitting at the dining table while empty dishes were being whisked away just like in a restaurant. But that’s what the maid is for, right? I “borrowed” my mother’s maid to help clean up when I had dinner parties at my place and I must say that it was a wonderful experience to be able to continue to act as host knowing that the house would be cleaned by someone else.

Then a few weeks ago, I had another dinner party – sans maid. My dinner companions helped out in the kitchen later. Times like these are when you can tell who has had household experience and who hasn’t. A friend said she hadn’t done the dishes in years. It showed in the way she was gingerly handling the plates. I shoo-ed them back into the living room, thinking that I might have to re-wash everything.

When they left the house, I said that I would be cleaning the floor then. It was way after midnight and they were aghast. The trouble is, I’m not used to leaving stuff to be done in the morning. The idea of sleeping in a dirty house was appalling to me.

Then I read about the unnamed mother who worries that cleaning duties might be inappropriate for younger children as they tire easily and might lose focus on their studies. It was a good thing she declined to be named or she would have been flamed, trolled and CSIed. Evidently, she knew that what she said would invite brickbats. Hence, the anonymity. I almost expected her to say: What are the school cleaners for then?

I wish more people would see cleaning as picking up after themselves even if they don’t think cleanliness is next to Godliness. 

My mother is fond of telling me that maid employers should be able to do everything that they expect the maid to do. In this respect, I fail in the ironing category. I have a part-time maid who does it for me.

What about washing toilets? Some wags have suggested that students be made to do this too. I vaguely recall that toilet washing in school was reserved for those in detention class, that is, the naughty ones. I was a good girl, so I never got to do that chore.

I wonder what parents will say if Ah Boy and Ah Girl were made to wash the toilets? I think it’s okay because we can’t always expect that there will always be foreigners who will do the dirty stuff around all the time. In fact, I think the enhanced state of our public toilets have to do with the cleaners who seem to be eternally washing toilets in malls and offices. Just like the surroundings of our HDB estates.

There’s nothing wrong with getting your hands dirty, or even getting down on your hands and knees, especially if it’s to make sure your surroundings are clean.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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