There's a family legend about my great-grandmother, born Mary Swan but known in adult life as Mrs. Brizzolara, which moniker the neighborhood kids could not pronounce and so she became "Mrs. B." or, to us in stories, simply Bee. The legend is that she was always Too Busy Rolling Bandages For the Red Cross to bother cleaning her house. This would have been circa World War I.
She liked to gad about, join committees, and do things, and so I guess great-grandfather, Mr. Brizzolara, had to put up with dust in the corners and socks on the floor and such. (There aren't too many legends about him, other than that he came from Genoa, had a terrific head of snowy white hair late in life, and did not like to be disturbed while listening to Chicago Cubs games on the radio.)
Anyway, when I look at my house, I like to think I'm channeling Bee. Oh, the rooms are not unhygienic, but they are all, um, lived-in enough to make me realize what is so beautiful about the glossy photographs in home design books and magazines. It's not just that design professionals have placed flowers and knick-knacks just so. It's that everything is clean. Clean floors, clean picture frames, sparkling shower fixtures, clean white grout around the tub, for heaven's sake. So I shrug and channel Bee, and generally keep on doing what I'm doing.
But, oddly enough, there are movies that inspire me to clean. One of them is Titanic. In the opening scenes, we see the old lady's house, as she spins pottery and listens to the television report of the finding of the beautiful drawing from the depths of the shipwreck. The sun is shining, and curtains blow. A big antique steamer trunk stands against a wall. The camera angles are low, and we can see that nice clean floor. There are lots of hanging plants, and a bowl of goldfish on the kitchen counter beside the tv. I think we hear the sound of tinkling chimes.
There's something about this scene of a busy, nice but obviously middle-class home -- no chandeliers or anything, and the adult granddaughter is loading the dishwasher -- that makes me look around and see that my old iron radiators are (um) kind of dusty, and the cats have tracked litter around, and the shower curtain is unfit to be seen, and maybe I'd like some goldfish. So I clean.
And then there's the great old British television series Mapp and Lucia. People who adore this show remark that the sets and costumes alone deserve their own awards or history or website or something, never mind the accolades given the actors and story. (It's all huge fun.) I think it's the beautiful flowers and plants in almost every scene that make me want to clean my house after I've watched an episode. The main characters, Lucia and Georgie, are forever sitting in perfectly appointed, cozy little rooms, hatching social plots or playing the piano while bouquets of carnations and sunflowers stand behind them, or a potted bromeliad in the corner near the servant's bellpull. I look and think, maybe I want some flowers for the house -- and of course I can't bring flowers into a messy room, so I'm inspired to clean.
Amelie is another. Remember the scene when Amelie drops the glass stopper to her perfume bottle, and it rolls along the bathroom floor and finally knocks a little porcelain tile loose from low down on the wall? Remember how clean everything is? What, the French don't get little cobwebs on the valves and pipes behind la toilette? So I clean.
By the way, all this is not to speak of Gigi. I'm always thrilled by Gaston's outburst, when Gigi rejects his advances, that she lives in a filthy apartment with worm-ridden furniture and so how can she refuse him and his wealth and tidiness? Aha! I tell myself -- validation! A charming fictional character, and her grandmother, too busy to clean! (Gaston's Uncle Honore agrees that her disgusting surroundings "must have driven her mad.") The trouble with Gigi is that all those red interiors make me want to redecorate.
You might get the impression that I watch these movies all the time and so afterward in spite of myself I am always cleaning. Not at all. It's just that when I do pop them in from time to time -- I reserve Amelie, for example, for Bastille Day, only watching it once a year to keep it special -- I see those scenes again and I sigh at their loveliness and remember. Oh yeah. These movies always make me want to clean.
Sometimes I really spend a day at it and feel virtuous and fresh when I'm done. "Now don't trash the house," I wag my finger at the family, "I did nothing but clean all day." Sometimes I'll devote maybe fifteen minutes with a paper towel and some Formula 409 to a project, and then reason that that'll do for now. After all, Bee was too busy rolling bandages ... and I'll bet she had scads more fun.