People who knew my mother and had been in her apartment would say that her floors were so clean that you could eat off of them. We lived in the projects where the floors were mostly concrete (sometimes covered with cheap tiles). Before my mother was confined to a wheelchair (the second time; the first time she had polio and learned to walk again), she would rise early at 6 am before her children woke and clean her apartment. When Momma could no longer walk (her muscles constricted; no definitive diagnosis), she taught us to clean the house. More was at stake than “spic and span” floors. Some people thought, and suggested, that she should place her children in Franklin Village —an institution for children with no parents or whose parents were unable to care for them. My mother refused to abandon her children to the county. She insisted she could care for her own children, even from a wheelchair—a confinement she resisted until she could no longer do so. Mommy first scooted around on a regular stool or chair (until it broke), graduated to a chair with small wheels, and finally, against her will, to a full blown wheel chair.
So my mother taught us to sweep and mop floors along with other household chores. Mommy did these things herself until depending on us became her last resort. She told me the hardest thing for her was to learn to depend on other “folks” (in this case us children were the “folks”). My mother was a perfectionist (of course, this wasn’t how I would have then described her insistence that we do things right). Mommy wanted us to sweep and mop the floors like she would if she were doing it. Too often we “swept just the middle of the floor” or “swiped the mop around the floor” neglecting to “get the corners.” “The floor is square,” she would remind us, and not round. “The corners are a part of the floor,” she fussed with frustration.
You can’t treat a square like it is a circle. The corners of a square matter. It is important to respect the image of a thing and not to treat it like it is something other than what it is. This works with people too. People are different; their differences should be respected even while we treat them impartially or with equality. Before my mother’s activities became somewhat restricted by the wheelchair attached to her hips (didn’t slow her down too much), she worked as a nurse’s assistant (she had two years of nursing school having dropped out when she could no longer afford the tuition). My mother meticulously took care of the older people who lived in (and sometimes were abandoned to) nursing homes; she took care of them “like they were her own parents.” And some were quite wealthy and tried to reward my mother, but she refused most of their gifts, if not all. Details matter especially when caring for people.
Mommy believed in giving people the same care she would want for herself or her parents regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. Somehow some of us think just because people are in need, they should accept whatever we give them. I remember Barbara Bush’s comment about the victims of Hurricane Katrina who were crammed into the Superdome under inhumane conditions. Former first lady Mrs. Bush said, "They're underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." As the gap between the rich and poor widens, it becomes more and more necessary for us to help our fellow human beings and to assist one another in the same manner that we would want to be helped. During this recession, some people who never thought their homes would be foreclosed and they’d be facing homelessness may after such experiences have a different view of the poor. And others in the same predicament may still think they are inherently different than most of the poor. Poverty and bad character or decisions are no more intrinsically related than are wealth and integrity and wise choices. Wealthy persons are capable of making the same good or bad choices as the poor; they just do so with more money.
So my mother was teaching us equality of care. And even though my mother concerned herself with details, she never lost sight of the broader picture—keeping her children together with her in a clean, healthy environment and not giving anyone an excuse to take them from her. I learned to pay attention to the details from my mother; I’m still trying to master the big picture thing.