Back when I entered the homes of strangers, and scrubbed their tile floors clean, I once cleaned the home of a man whose father invented the pop top can. This sort of inherited wealth is common in Dayton, Ohio, where there are more patents per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Some of these historic inventors have children and grandchildren who continue to honor and cement their family legacy by spearheading foundations, cutting ribbons, or donating clean slices of millions off of the ancestral pie. The offspring of the genius-driven rich are the philanthropists, the organizers, the archivists of the history of a brilliant brain.

Ermal Fraze, the Ohioan who invented the pop top can (his inspiration grew from frustration at a picnic at the park), has a surviving family that’s divided a fortune made by ingenuity (and tool manufacturing) and cemented the arts in the small suburb of Kettering, Ohio, where I grew up. His name graces the large amphitheatre that sprung from the ground where my friends and I used to smoke cigarettes and make out, instead of doing our homework like we were supposed to. Where baggy jeans once fell around skinny ankles, famous musicians now give concerts under the stars.

In my very early twenties, directionless and poor, I cleaned houses for a living. I was good at it, so it was common for the owners of the company to send me out to homes with familiar last names like Wright, Deeds, Kettering, Lowe, Dunbar, Patterson, and yes, Fraze). I had a reputation for taking great care of prestigious properties and historic homes, and I loved sliding inside the heavy doors of the wealthy and quietly observing the beauty that was cultivated with so much money. I lemon-oiled the ornate details of a wooden staircase; I used only vinegar with a few drops of lavender on travertine tile floors. I convinced myself that by taking such care that I was more than mere maid in these living museums, I was curator and preservationist. Such grandeur must be preserved and cared for with the right materials and attention.

The house of one of the heirs to the pop top can tab was interesting, because it was two condominiums set side by side that mirrored one another architecturally. One of the multi-level modern townhomes was decorated with Navajo rugs, cow skulls, and giant, glossy black and white Ansel Adams prints that stretched from floor to cathedral ceiling. On the hardwood floor, red and black Kulim cushions were scattered, and thick white pillar candles of varying heights tucked into corners and covering the mantle and hearth of a huge stone fireplace. It was airy, welcoming, and immaculate. I barely had to straighten the couch cushions, and I rarely had to do more than wipe the bits of dust from the marble countertops in the bathrooms. The toilets usually still gleamed white, unused since my last visit.

In the end of one of the long hallways, past the sparely decorated but breathtaking master suite, was a small, low door that I had to push open to get to the twin condo next door. Often there were toys scattered in front that I had to push out of the way immediately after entering.  The sounds of young children running around barefoot usually met my ears upon my entrance, and the evidence of their merriment was strewn across the stained white carpet (millions of Legos, hundreds of naked blonde baby dolls with tangled hair). This unit was occupied by the owner, the heir, the historian and trust-holder of late father’s fortune.

The other side, the beautiful and clean side, was offered to the performing artists who played concerts at the amphitheatre named for the homeowner’s father. So, after James Taylor (or Peter Frampton or Sheryl Crowe) sang their last encore, they were escorted to this warm and welcoming place to bed down for the night. It was a homier alternative to the usual chilly, beige, air-conditioned hotel penthouse suite.

But where the cultivated side had warmth and passion, the lived-in side had bare walls and chaos. The only room I recall that was welcoming were the children’s, which were located downstairs and opened up to large sliding glass windows that overlooked (and led down to) the woods. The master suite was empty except for a bed and an unusually small dresser, and the marble bathroom counter (the same material as the one in the other unit), was so cluttered with bottles of lotion, glass perfume bottles, and half-used and squeezed out tubes of toothpaste that I could barely wipe a cleaning rag over it. The only decoration I remember clearly was a large stone Buddha statue, reclining ambivalently in a corner of the bare living room. The look on his face was placid, of course. My face was not that relaxed, because I had to scoop up mounds of plastic toys that lay before His feet, before I could vacuum around Him.

In stark comparison to the restless unease of the lived-in side, the unit reserved for famous guests sat as peaceful as the Buddha’s expression. It seemed to calmly observe the quiet and the eventual upheaval, resting sagely and offering a comfort of presence. Where tumult, chaos, and hurricane rhythm reigned on one side, a level, storm less sea shone like glass on the other. Balance.



From the Sackler/Freer gallery at the Smithsonian





3 thoughts on “Balance

  1. I had forgotten that you used to clean, but now that you mention it here, I think I may have known and only forgotten. But I, too, used to clean, back when I was poor and couldn’t concentrate well enough to do much else. Love the way you have juxtaposed to these two living spaces. Hope your week is going well.

  2. Love your words, images and feelings on balance. Very appropriately titled! What an interesting balance between the two condominiums. I also love your feeling of being curator to these spaces. Great writing — I always, always enjoy your interesting descriptions, comparisons and metaphors.

  3. Kathy – You’ve illustrated EXACTLY why it’s good for people to take up cleaning houses sometimes – when you can’t concentrate well enough to do anything else. Absolutely. I feel like high-fiving you!!

    KT – Thank you so much, KT. I’ve been reading your new entries, and love the explosion of love and growth you’ve been sharing. xoxo

"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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