A constant of my daily shower routine is using the washcloth to scrub behind my ears. Why? It’s not like the behind-the-ear area of a 60-something guy working at a desk in a white-collar job is constantly exposed to dirt and therefore requires a vigorous daily scouring.
No, it’s because I remember my mother inspecting that particular area and then saying, with a tone of terrible shock and deep regret, that my postauricular regions had become “so filthy” — not just dirty, mind you, but filthy, which was much, much worse — that “you could grow potatoes back there.” And then I would be marched off to the bathroom to wash my face and neck and the unseemly behind the ear areas, preferably with rough Lava brand soap that was made with pumice and seemed like it was taking off a layer of skin in the face-washing process.
Interestingly, it was always potatoes that could be grown in the heavy layer of dirt and grime that somehow had accumulated while I was out playing with UJ and our friends. Not carrots, or corn, or even flowers, but inevitably potatoes. Because, at that age, mothers seem to know everything, my natural assumption was, and still is, that potatoes must require an especially deep, dark, heavy soil if they are to grow properly.
Mom used to have a sign hanging in the house that said “my house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy,” but that just meant the house was treated differently from the kids in the family. The house may have gotten the benefit of the doubt, but Mom was extraordinarily sensitive to any sign of human grubbiness or — God forbid! — “B.O.” (And “B.O.” was pronounced by my mother, who never uttered a profanity of any kind in her entire life, as if it were the queen mother of curses.)
And yet, when we were doing chores around the house, Mom inevitably would tell us kids to “put a little elbow grease into it.” How we were to do that and still maintain the expected level of spotlessness was left unexplained.