My Very Own Cleaning Lady

I always thought I’d do my own cleaning,
            forget the working-class way

of Italian American women like my mother who kept
                        a broom
            beside her front door as if it were

a sign that read, “we work hard, we clean hard
                        so wipe
            your damn feet on the welcome mat before 

you step inside.” The broom was a sign that well-off
            didn’t understand; they saw it as clutter

that belonged in a tool shed behind a fence
                        in the back
            yard with the snow blower and the leaf blower

and the lawn mower. Then I moved to Brooklyn,
            a co-op apartment, had a baby and a contractor who

skipped town in the middle of renovation. He left me in
            living hell with a nursing newborn,

650 square feet of filth and six ounces of breast milk
                        every four hours,
            dust he knew my own prosperity created

because I could afford to add on a second bedroom. I was
            ‘merican in this immigrant’s eyes who’d just pay

to have someone else clean up after him. It was 
                        all I could
            do to take a shower but I ignored signs

in our lobby that advertised “PhDs who clean.” It wasn’t
                        in me
            to hire someone, even a scholar gathering

dust samples for a doctoral thesis.  I still thought
            would never change hands to get the apartment

clean when my mother came for a visit. She wanted to but
                        didn’t ask
            why not a house in Pittsburgh, why I waited so long

to leave my job and have a baby. She filled a bucket
                        of water,
            scrubbed the floor on her knees one square foot

at a time. Payback for all the Saturdays I cleaned my room. As she
            her rag and said the contractor’s name in vain,

I rested on the sofa with my son, remembering
                        dust to dust.

Paola Corso is a New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and author of a book of poems Death by Renaissance (2004) set in her native Pittsburgh river town where her Italian immigrant grandfather and father worked in the steel mill. Her story collection Giovanna’s 86 Circles, also set in Pittsburgh, is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press. Email her at