I was born at the beginning of the 1960s, just when everything changed. But I carry in me the voices of my elders – people born the century-before-last, even some people who’d been alive in the American Civil War.
And they all said one special thing to me. Often. ‘Wash your hands!’
All the dang time.
Once, I’d come in from school to find my great-grandmother there, drinking tea and eating coffee cake. I threw down my things and ran over to hug her and she shrank back. Voices rang out from all corners of the dining area, ‘WASH YOUR HANDS!’
I trudged to the lavatory, muttering about the rejection, and looking at my perfectly pink fingers. They weren’t dirty. At all.
I’d just do the quick rinse and convincing wipe on the towel that I’d perfected. But no. Mom was there, watching. ‘Wash them right.’
Our soap contained disinfectant – stripes of it in the bar, with milder stripes that stopped your skin from totally drying out. Granma’s hand soap was a brand called ‘Lava’. It had sand particles imbedded into it and practically removed a layer of epidermis every time you used it. Fancy smelling, non-medicated soaps were for grownup guests – and guests in our social circle generally knew to find the ‘real’ soap in the cupboard and use that, in order to keep the rose-scented stuff pristine for the next special visitor.
I dutifully washed my already-clean hands with the ‘Lifebuoy’. I didn’t care about seeing my stupid old great grandmother or any of my other tedious relatives after that. I gave perfunctory greetings, ate my coffee cake and retreated to the sofa with a book.
It was ‘wash your hands’ every time you came in the house and ‘wash your hands!’ before you ate and ‘for goodness sakes, go wash your hands!’ if you’d dodged indoors to grab a drink during a game outdoors. Slowly, my mother gave up the battle. She inspected me for visible dirt from time to time but normally just scrubbed me for Sunday Mass.
But my grandparents! They never let up.
It was always ‘wash your hands!’ and ‘open a window and get some air circulating in here’ and ‘cover your mouth when you cough’. They had rules that Mom and Dad knew but ignored and to me these rules made no sense whatsoever. They rigorously vacuumed cloth sofas and preferred cold, hard leather or leatherette because ‘I can wipe them clean.’ They shuddered at wall-to-wall carpets. ‘You can’t get under them!’ They had tablecloths that were washed after every meal, even when nobody had spilled.
Compared to Mom’s rather lazy housekeeping, where we stewed in a nice warm fug of central heating and washed things only when they looked dirty or smelled bad – my grandparents and great aunts and uncles seemed totally nuts.
But they had lived through the Spanish Flu. Tuberculosis. Polio. Rubella.
Today, (in what I hope is) midway through the Covid19 pandemic, I begin to hear their voices again, inside my head, like a cheerleading squad from my DNA. I wash my hands, so properly that they would have smiled with pride. The heating has come on in these chilly mornings, but I’ve left a window in every room open a little crack.
My normal has gone, but theirs has returned. Sixty years after I first heard their voices, I’m starting to understand.