My Expertise?

I used to wonder why I always got the job of cleaning toilets! Was there something about me? My appearance? Or what? But ever since I was a kid on the farm, and though I had sisters who could have taken turns, I always got to clean the toilets.

My main chore on Saturday forenoons while growing up on the farm was to clean the bathroom on the main floor, the one and only bathroom for the whole family of 12 children and two parents. My three older sisters had their weekly chores too, and my older brothers had their outdoor chores, as well, but I always had the same task: cleaning the toilets.

I would start by closing the bathroom door, leaving it open about an inch so I could hear the music from the one and only radio located on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. Those whose job it was to clean the living room, our parents’ bedroom, and the two who went to clean the upstairs, would leave their doors open as well so we all could hear the country western or old-time music from the one and only radio in the house. The radio in the barn was loud so that no matter where the boys were working, they could hear the music. That was especially true in the afternoon when there was a baseball game on and the radio was turned loud so that no matter where one was in the yard, the game could be heard.  Both our parents loved music, and maybe this is why our family loved sing-a-longs. Even the animals in the barn, especially the cows, enjoyed the music. Just as plants do well with music in the background, so also does the milk production of cows increase with the sound of music.

While working in the lavatory, I would try to sing along. If someone knocked on the door and wanted to use the toilet, I would answer, “Go to the outhouse.” No one liked walking on the rough path in the woods, there was fear of insect bites, and a very aged Sears Roebuck Catalogue with some curled edges, and no radio. My jobs inside the lavatory were to scour the sink, the tub, the stool, shine the mirror, scrub and wax the floor, and straighten the towels in the closet. I was queen of this space every Saturday forenoon until I left to go to St. Francis High School, a boarding school in Little Falls, Minn.

To help pay for my tuition, I had two jobs: one was to clean the lavatories on third floor of the high school, and the other was cleaning the toilets in the nurses building across the street. Another student, Betty, and I were given the job of cleaning the big lavatory on our third floor, second wing of the high school building. It had two long rows of eight sinks on both sides, six tubs, six showers, and six stools.

Guess what job I got after joining the monastery? Yes, cleaning the bathroom on my dorm floor. I was beginning to get a complex. What about my appearance made them give me the job of the bathrooms? Did someone tell the leaders that’s what I did at my boarding school? But being in the convent, I did it without questioning.

During my first retreat in the convent, I heard the retreat master tell about the Life of the Little Flower, St. Therese and how she worked daily in the laundry, and if someone squirted water at her, she would offer it up to God. So, I thought I could “offer it up” and maybe I’d become holy like her.

Then I was assigned to my first experience of teaching at St. Mary’s Elementary School in St. Cloud while living in the Institute building across the street. Again, I was assigned to cleaning the bathroom right next to our dorm. It had three stools, two tubs, and three sinks. The room faced the south with three windows, having sheer curtains, one on each end. Every Saturday forenoon, I would pin up my long skirt, roll up my sleeves and go to work, shine the sinks, the faucets, clean the stools inside and outside, scrub the floor both in the lavatory, as well as the adjacent room that had the tubs and closets. All without a radio! Then I would stand up by the hall doorway looking over what I just accomplished. The sun was shining in, the windows were open with the warm air coming in, all the faucets were shining, the curtains blowing gin and all helping to dry the floor as well as let in the fresh air. There was no such thing as air freshener at that time, not in the convent. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness, ” I thought.

Margaret Mandernach, OSB

Photo: Sister Tamra Thomas cleaning the bathroom of a Central Minnesota Habitat for Humanity house