| Real Life |

How to Clean a Shelf in Ninety Days

I, being a focused, consistent, persistent balabusta who knew exactly what was contained on one shelf in her house, brought down the fishbowl with much regret

“Start early,” they said.

“Be focused, consistent, and persistent,” they said.

“Make a schedule and stick with it,” they said.

“Is there a they aside from the voices in your head?” my husband asks, as I sit cross-legged on the living room floor surrounded by 2,497 pictures. (I know the exact count because I paid .09 cents for each print, plus shipping, and ate into my kids’ Shabbos shoes budget.)

It’s 15 days to Pesach and my pantry may be filled with pasta and the kitchen floor coated in cheerio grounds, but against all odds I had done it and put all of the photos through 2016 into albums! Only 38 more months to go through.


I’d had enough with my year-after-year mad-last-minute cleaning rush and decided to start like the real balabustas do — right after Chanukah. I made a fancy spreadsheet, set up a timer and reminder alert on my phone, and keyed in all the rooms, closets, and targeted areas to clean. I adjusted the start date to account for the week I lost inputting all the data and we were ready to go. “We” meaning “me.” And the voices in my head.

I started with the junk closet on the first floor. I’d allocated two hours to complete the closet, divided over two days. I was committed to making the system work and went to attack the top shelf first, as per the battle plan. Which is when I hit the first roadblock: I needed a stepstool. The stepstool should have been right inside the closet, folded and blocking access to the lower three shelves. But it was missing.

My sharp sleuthing skills led me to the dining room, my suspicions growing at the sound of ill-concealed urgent whispers.

I found the kids surrounding the stepstool, with Yoni on the top rung holding the bristles of a broom and scraping the stick along the ceiling, precariously close to the chandelier.

“You almost got it! Scrape it harder!”

“What are you doing?!” I yelled, even though it was pretty obvious, but no one ever really answers me anyway.

“Oh. Hi, Ma. Ummm. Nothing. Don’t worry. We’re getting it down.”

Oh, no, they weren’t. There’s no getting down a sticky hand without leaving a tell-tale greasy spot on the painted surface. There were already two similar spots up there plus another on the playroom wall, which was why I had banned those sticky hand toys from the house. They, along with slime, putty, and glitter, were illegal contrabands.

I know, I should have let them deal with the consequences and scrub the ceiling clean, but my cleaning clock was ticking and I needed that stepstool. I left the blue palm with a trailing tail adorning my dining room ceiling and added to the cleaning chart Sticky Hands on Ceiling.

I glanced at my watch; 42 minutes left. Time sure flies by fast when you have kids.

I reached for the translucent storage box on the top right shelf of the junk closet. It was clearly labeled “Flashlights without bulbs.” I was amazed at my organizational skills. I opened the box, and sure enough, neatly lined up were seven flashlights, all missing their bulbs.

I dumped them into the garbage and eyed the rest of the shelf. I was feeling quite proud of myself. That was quick, easy, and painless. I figured I should be done with the closet in less time than anticipated and gain extra storage space to boot.

Next I reached for … Ohmigosh. The fishbowl! Camp carnival day was a mournful day in our house, because I made the kids give away the poor little doomed goldfish that they brought home in flimsy plastic bags, whose water level reached a dangerously low one-inch level when placed on a flat surface and the bag spreads.

Citing tzaar baalei chayim and a lack of a proper home for them, I had made vague promises that maybe one day we would get a fishbowl.

I pushed the bowl as far back out of sight as I could and reached for the stuffed plastic bag next to it, which was deceptively heavier than it looked. The bag ripped, spilling its contents all over the carpeted floor.

I gasped.

The confiscated, illegal, contraband items! I had thought those were long buried under three layers of the landfill by now. Goo, slime, putty, and glitter rolled away, emitting silent signals summoning the kids. The glitter container must not have been fully closed, because the gray carpet twinkled like a disco ball. I tried desperately to block off the crime scene.

“Back, back. Get back!” I shouted at the kids, as a little egg of putty rolled out of the perimeter. I struggled to kick it backwards with my right leg, while simultaneously holding off Shuli with my left arm.

“These are prizes for cleaning!” I blurted out in a brilliant brainstorm. “If every speck of glitter is vacuumed up, you can each pick one prize tomorrow morning on your way out the door to take to school.” I prayed that no one would come home the next day with slime-coated winter coats. I’d just finished soaking them all in vinegar. (Seriously. That really works.)

My phone jingled, signaling the end to a complete hour of “focused, consistent, persistent” cleaning. I ticked off the top shelf of the closet as completed and updated the following day’s goal to complete the rest of the closet. It shouldn’t take more than an hour, tops.


I was optimistic for the second day of intense, focused cleaning. The object of the game was to take out each item, toss or relocate it to its proper place, and move on.

The second-top shelf held two dust-coated rectangular boxes. I gingerly opened them, bracing myself for more glitter or slime drama. Instead, I gasped in delight. Pictures are the best surprise! The photos were from five years ago and were probably the last batch I had printed.

Aww, Shuli was such a cute toddler! I sat on the stepstool and browsed through the memories: the summer trip to Lancaster, my brother’s wedding, Yoni’s upsherin. I had procrastinated putting them into albums for so long and had fallen years behind on ordering prints. I should do it someday. One day.

But my arm froze when it came to putting the boxes back on the empty shelf. Why should they go back into the junk closet? The closet didn’t necessarily have to be completed today. Honestly. There wasn’t any chometz in there anyway. And it was three months until Pesach! I had oodles and oodles of time. This was precisely why I had started cleaning so early; so things could actually get organized. It was now or never.

I logged into my cleaning schedule and selected the day’s goal.

I clicked Second Shelf and added a subcategory: Sort Photos.

I moved through the rest of the closet and the schedule down another day and smiled. It would be fun. Day three’s cleaning slot was relinquished to shopping for photo albums; it meant another delay in the schedule, but I had plenty of time to work with. And anyway, I couldn’t finish the closet until the shelf was done, which meant putting the pictures into albums.

As luck would have it, the store no longer carried my favorite albums (they said it had been out of stock for four years). It took another two days of searching before admitting defeat and going with a shorter and wider book.

The actual sorting was harder than I had anticipated. I made piles on the dining room table: Winter 2015, Summer 2015, Fall 2015. I grouped all pictures of Nachi in a blue stretchie together because there was no way to tell when they were each taken.

I searched through the photos for the spring ones. Did I not take any pictures at all for five months? No, we had to have taken some. We went to Niagara Falls that Pesach Chol Hamoed! Where were our Niagara pictures?

The alarm signaled the end of the cleaning hour, but I snoozed it, scouring the older albums, photo box, and then my computer. The photos were there, just not developed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Minor setback, but if it was going to be done, it needed to be done right. I ordered the pictures.

According to my original schedule, I should have already been finished with the closet, the master bedroom closets, dresser, and the boys’ room, but I was determined to see the picture project through. My motto was focus, persistence, and consistent.

It took three days to get 2015’s pictures into the albums because I found the visiting day pictures after I was already done and had to move each of the autumn pictures down 29 slots to make room for them, and then ran out of space in the album so I had to overflow it into the next album, which meant moving all the Chanukah photos in that one down seven slots. It was fine. It was great. All was well, because 2015 was done!

Then the Niagara Falls photos arrived in the mail.

I went on strike, rebelling against modern society and the necessity to journal our lives with tangible memories, and refused to snap a single photo for the next 48 hours.

But Nachi needed a picture of himself for school and the only ones I had were of him in a blue stretchie in the baby swing. I reversed course and vowed to gather, sift, order, sort, arrange, and compile all of our pictures, so baby Kayla will never grow up thinking she was adopted.

I did the only sane thing and went out to buy ten new photo albums.

Suddenly, it was with Rosh Chodesh Adar and I went into full panic mode. Not because I was seven weeks behind in my cleaning schedule, or that Shuli’s costume that was supposed to be on the second-top shelf in the junk closet that used to hold the picture boxes was mysteriously found in the playroom streaked with slime, but because the kids brought home goldfish from school as a Rosh Chodesh treat.

And I, being a focused, consistent, persistent balabusta who knew exactly what was contained on one shelf in her house, brought down the fishbowl with much regret. A bit of advice: ignorance usually is bliss.


It’s nearly two weeks to Pesach. My mother has already filled an entire freezer with soups and kugels, my sister’s Seder ke’arah is being polished, and I triumphantly boast 2,497 4×6 matte photo prints.

I finally unsnoozed my cleaning checklist, which I have named “Choni Hame’agl,” and proudly check off Junk Closet: Second Shelf: Subcategory: Sort Photos.

Focus, consistency, and persistence certainly paid off. Next time the kids complain they’re bored I can give them 14 albums of tangible proof that our family absolutely does do things, even if those things are a series of 11 frames depicting the shoveling progress of the first snow of the season.

Next up on the list is Sticky hands on ceiling.

I’ll get to everything eventually, even if it may not be this year. It looks like it’s going to be the usual last-minute mad rush. Good thing I started early.

P.S. The junk closet’s second-top shelf has since been filled with reusable Purim containers.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 686)

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