Right, then wrong, then almost right by
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(95 Stories)

Prompted By I Swore I'd Never

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It started with Grandma Rose, and when I think back, the practice made sense. After all, when my grandmother came to this country at the turn of the 20th century, she lived in a tenement, and no one had heard the word “antibiotics.” Getting dirt into a skin opening could mean infection or worse. Hence, the hand washing I remember when my grandmother lived with us, before she handled food and whenever she came into the house.

... it got to the point where her hands were raw, and the doctor told her to ease off. She didn't work in a sewer, he said.

My grandmother taught my mother well, but my mother took things way too far. As a child, my mother had severe rashes, which we now understand was eczema, an autoimmune condition that had nothing to do with cleanliness or the lack of it. But back then, the doctors were mystified and tried many treatments. According to my mother, they smeared her with a vile-smelling black ointment, and she had to wash with caustic soap. Anything other than absolutely clean was bad.

Between my grandmother’s caution and the thought that being clean could cure her rashes, my mother became germaphobic and obsessive about hand washing. Now I understand how the trauma might have triggered my mother’s hand washing, but growing up it was maddening to me.

During the time I lived at home, I remember her scrubbing and scrubbing her hands–a lot. She pestered my brother and me do so as well. When I was a teenager it got to the point where her hands were raw, and the doctor told her to ease off. She didn’t work in a sewer, he said. This helped to a degree, although at times of stress my mother would start washing her hands more frequently. So I swore that, while I’d wash my hands “normally,” I would never be that crazy about it.

Then, when Covid-19 hit, what’s the first message we heard? Wash your hands! Frequently!  At first I followed the “every two hours” rule religiously. I badgered my partner: “Why aren’t you washing your hands?” After the first month, when I realized how dry my hands were, even with moisturizing soap and hand cream, I thought things over. Was I picking up my mother’s behavior?

I was rarely leaving the house, and no one was coming in, and during those times, there would be no virus to wash off. So I have largely reverted to what would be considered a conventional level of hand washing, except I am diligent about it when I return home after shopping, and I have my hand sanitizer to use between stops when I am out.

It took a pandemic to get me close to my mother’s hand washing practices, but I’ve stepped back from the edge and tried to find the balance between right, wrong, and almost right.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    It’s pretty ironic, Marian, that it took a pandemic to get you to observe your mother’s hand washing routine (which sounds a bit compulsive and was likely started by lack of knowledge by doctors in her era). My sister-in-law, who suffers from OCD, declared Covid-19 the best friend she ever had in terms of confirming what she had been practicing all of her life.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Sanitation (or lack thereof) from over a century ago is so different than what we have now, Marian. How interesting that your mother would wash her hands raw, due to an unknown skin condition and here we are with COVID-19, where we are commanded to wash frequently, or at least use hand sanitizer all the time, which also leaves our hands chapped.

    I never heard the “every 2 hours” rule (maybe because we weren’t an early hot spot). We just heard “often” and every time you’ve been outside or handled something from outside, but I can understand how you reverted to your mother’s way with this pandemic and the ways to stay safe. Hand washing it one of the big three in ways to avoid it, so it makes perfect sense to me.

  3. Suzy says:

    Marian, this is fascinating to me! Your grandmother was right to take those precautions when she lived in a tenement, and of course continued even after her life got better. But your mother carried it too far, and probably exacerbated her eczema with all the scrubbing. Glad you have been able to find the happy medium. Seems like where you are now is “right,” not just “almost right.”

    Like Betsy, I never heard the “every two hours” rule, but since I don’t go anywhere except the park (by myself) or see anyone except my husband, I haven’t worried about it.

    • Marian says:

      It’s good to know you think I’ve arrived at the happy medium, Suzy. I don’t think the two-hours rule was in writing or formalized. I heard Dr. Fauci talk early on in the pandemic about what he was doing, and even he thought that might be too strict.

  4. Now I understand. I can still hear my grandmother asking, “Did you wash your hands?” any time I entered the kitchen when I was a child. (She lived with us.) And now that I think about it, it might be something I could have written about for this prompt. Because of her, I never bugged my daughter about washing her hands once she was old enough to know when it was necessary. My grandmother would have been well suited for these times. Me. not so much…I have to remind myself. I, too, think you’ve found the perfect balance and will aim for something in that range.

    • Marian says:

      Balance is really the key, Barb. I find it interesting that our grandparents lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and must have had some reaction to it. My grandmother never talked about it, though. I guess the hand washing was something they did to be safe because there were very few medical alternatives. And, it’s interesting that Jewish ritual practices involve hand washing before meals–symbolic, maybe, but definitely a health benefit in earlier times and again now, for sure.

  5. Marian, before Covid who would have thought hand-washing would be a cause celebre – except your Grandma Rose of course!

    Seriously our new emphasis on the importance of hand-washing makes me think of my dad. He was a physician – an old fashioned GP who made house calls with his little black bag, and could your treat your ailments or deliver your baby.

    And because he needed to wash his hands so often. they always felt sandpaper. But his heart was as warm as his hands were rough!

  6. John Shutkin says:

    As others have noted, Marian, irony abounds in this great story of yours. And coincidence — i.e., were it not for this pandemic…. I also can’t help thinking a bit about Lady Macbeth and her “damned spot.”

    But you are right; it is all about balance.

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