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The Battle I Should Never Have Picked With My Parents

For most of my life, I’ve been chasing an impossible standard.

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aarp, girlfriend, parents, illustration
Mariah Llanes
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I recently bought a new house, and my very active 82-year-old parents were coming for a visit. For at least 25 years, these visits have followed a pattern. Before my parents arrive, I worry about whether everything will be perfectly clean and working properly, because if it isn’t, they will clean it, fix it or hire someone.

While this may seem generous, it puts me on pins and needles. They show their love by doing and correcting, and I should show my love by cleaning. But the more I think about this, the less energy I have. And then I become distracted by a creative project like writing, and — boom — it’s time to go to work or sleep.

Late in the evening before their arrival, I decide that the one thing I can do is clean the fridge. The upside of having less money is that there's only a carton of yogurt, splash of soy milk, some old grapes, four blocks of tofu and a lemon. Aside from the fridge door's motley sentry line of global condiments, from sriracha and rice vinegar to maple syrup and liquid aminos, it's optimal cleaning time.

Because I just moved in, this fridge and its parts are unfamiliar to me. I wipe and scrub and lay the parts across the counter to dry. A few hours before my parents arrive, I put everything back together. I'm fairly certain it's secure, and it’s definitely sparkling clean.

My guests of honor ring the bell. Great place! they say. What a big fridge you have! We go to the store the next day. My parents are super healthy, so they buy all the “right” foods. The fresh produce looks so colorful it’s practically a MoMA exhibit.

Meanwhile, as expected, the parental mental cogs are turning. No one said the toilets were gross, but someone did go out and buy those blue bleaching disks, and it wasn't me.

I double down and applaud myself for not cleaning. I realize that for most of my life, I’ve been chasing an impossible standard, trying to look and act so others feel their world is in order. And no one notices the duck is furiously paddling under the calm surface.

My beautiful fridge quickly fills up with clamshell boxes of restaurant leftovers, because — pro tip if you ever invite my parents to stay — when you don't clean, they sure as hell will not expect you to cook. An unclean house is clearly a cry for help that is best answered by going out to dinner every night.

Deep down I don’t feel great about opting out of my cleaning birthright. But whenever I feel pulled into the white glove of a shame spiral, a marquee inside my eyelids flashes FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE! Talk to the fridge! I like a clean fridge, and I cannot lie. I got 99 problems, but my fridge ain't one of them. Fridge fridge fridge.

As I write this from my comfy couch, I hear the pop-pop-pop of my octogenarian mom's slip-on sneakers on the kitchen floor. Dad is asking for the fourth time if I have a mop, and I say no for god’s sake there's just a Swiffer and is anyone listening? Yes, I have a tub of rags above the dryer. Now Mom's boiling water and Dad's on his hands and knees, wiping down the floor.

Meanwhile, everyone assumed that in such a clean fridge, the door shelf would be secure; you know, the shelf holding all those liquid sauces. It's not clear exactly what causes them to tumble, but now I hear two pairs of soles popping off the syrup-soy-vinegar floor coating. This is an O. Henry scene, predestined by my personal monument of independence. I wanted to do one thing well, dammit, and no one could take that away from me.

Of course, I was wrong. And as I hear my parents clean, I laugh at myself to keep the guilt at bay.