Good communication skills are hard to find. It takes a gift to speak to someone’s soul. My mother had that gift. She was an amazing teacher. I learned a lot from the things she said, but I learned even more by watching what she did. Her actions resonated—powerfully.
Mom worked as a medical professional and couldn’t stand the thought of germs, so you can imagine how intently she worked to keep things clean and in their place. Her house always smelled of lemon disinfectant, as she swept daily and mopped at least weekly.
She kept a hand-written daily cleaning schedule taped inside a cupboard door in the kitchen. Mom taught us that cleaning a little bit every day eliminated the need for huge cleaning projects. No job was hard because it was practically clean before we started. I can’t begin to tell you how many Saturday mornings I spent cleaning mirrors that were already spotless. We picked up the clutter throughout the house constantly, and each room had its day to be vacuumed, dusted, and polished. By the end of the week, every inch of the house had been thoroughly cleaned—except my room.
My bedroom was so cluttered it was hard to find. Sure, you could find the door, but opening that door was like stepping into a foreign land. It was otherworldly. Mom reminded me daily to organize my mess, make my bed, and put away my clothes, but it never got through. The way I saw it, my mess didn’t affect anyone but me.
I was wrong.
One day after school I discovered that Mom had had enough. When I opened my bedroom door I found my shelves were spotlessly clean and empty. My desktop was sparkling clean also. Not a scrap of paper. Not a book. Not a pencil. Nothing. The top of my dresser was the same way. All of that stuff was in a huge pile on my floor. My bed, which I had left unkempt, was now a bare mattress with bedding wadded into a ball in the center. The message was perfectly clear: If I wanted to sleep that night, I had to do something about my room.
I learned that the first step to organizing any space is to clear everything off, wipe it clean, and then thoughtfully replace the items you truly want to keep. The second step—keep a trash bag handy. I couldn’t believe how much junk I had collected in that small space. But I hadn’t yet learned my most important lesson.
Over time the clutter slowly returned—like a bacterial infection that hadn’t been hit with the proper dose of antibiotic. It was unnoticeable at first—a stack of paper on the desk, a dirty hook-shot-sock that missed the hamper, a stack of clean clothes that had fallen to the floor, a forgotten pop-sickle stick. Before I knew it, my room was sick.
Again my mother reminded me to clean, and again I gave only a meager effort. Then one morning Mom walked into my room with a stack of clean, folded clothes. Instead of placing them on the end of my bed for me to put away, as was usually the case, she dropped them on the floor, stomped on them, and kicked them around the room. “There,” she said, “Now they’re just the way you like them,” and she walked away.
I laughed. She didn’t.
As I looked around my room I finally realized what Mom wasn’t saying: keeping my clothes in their place and my room tidy didn’t only affect me, it was a reflection of my respect for her and the efforts she was making on my behalf. She didn’t have to do my laundry or keep a spotless house, but she did all that because she loved us. Keeping my room clean and my things in their place was the least I could do to show my appreciation. I can’t say I kept my room spotless after that realization, but I can say I tried much more often, and was reminded much less often.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of how often my mom showed me how to plan, organize, and accomplish my goals. Every time I put my clothes in a drawer, sweep the floor, or organize my garage, I think of the lessons she taught. Every time I open my pantry door and read the lists I have taped inside, I think of her. And each time I set a goal or write in my planner, I remember how often I watched her do the very same thing. After 75 years of planning, goal setting, and living an organized life, my mom has accomplished nearly all of her goals. I plan to do the same, and one of my highest aspirations is to be more like mom.