Literary Journal – Spring 2017

Cleaning the Crevices with a Cotton Swab

By Lois Guarino Hazel

I recently cleaned our guest room; I mean really cleaned, with products for each different surface and my trusty cotton swabs for the itsy-bitsy spaces where hidden dirt lurks.  The American chestnut furniture in that room belonged to my husband’s grandparents, their first bedroom suite. The rare wood, with its soft patina, invites and comforts. The design is simple, but the junctures of the angles collect dust and other unwanted particles, thus the cotton swab. A little lemon oil on the tip of the swab works wonders, and I marvel at the perfection of this tiny tool for the job.

Cleaning for me creates a time for mind wandering, so while digging and poking into the furniture’s nooks and crannies, I wished for a tool like the cotton swab that I could use to clean up the far reaches of my persona. There are areas of my life where a deep cleansing could be enormously beneficial, but I can never quite reach those spots. Constricted by fear, bound by habit, I perpetuate the familiar.  But, oh, if I could just dislodge those particles . . .

Would I then be empowered to speak out when I hear a friend mumble a slur that strikes at my sense of justice? Would the emboldened me remain straight-faced and silent when a usually-kind relative spouts a joke that fails to resonate with my sense of equality? Or, closer to home, would I speak up when my husband sends me mixed messages, leaving me to cope with a wounded ego?

How, where, and when did I begin to harbor these bits of unwanted traits? Always a people-pleaser, the middle child who never rocked the boat, my psyche evolved as soother/comforter. In college, I soaked up the repartee of debating competitions, but could never bring myself to participate. Instead, I wrote—poems, essays, term papers. One semester of speech class emboldened me for the future; and in my forties, I joined Toastmasters, as my father had done so many years before.

The group met monthly at work during lunch, and I found myself disclosing bits of my history and heritage. When no one ran screaming from the room, I ventured further into myself, sometimes surprised what I discovered there. But I never reached my core. Was I afraid of what I might unearth?

I married Dale at age 24, a self-confident (some would say arrogant) man I met at college. We came from laughably divergent backgrounds: he the grandson of an evangelical preacher, reared in a rather poor, rural, country small town; me a staunch Roman Catholic, from upper class suburbia, who thrived on concerts, plays, and co-hosting our parents lavish dinner parties. He stalwart German; me volatile Italian. His family of the non-hugging variety; mine accosting each other with hugs and kisses whenever we arrived or left anywhere. With him, it was all about intellect; with me, it was all about love and expression. What emotional lint did this leave behind?

Religious education and a God-loving home were important to both of us, so we began a search for a church where our family would be comfortable. The girls were baptized Roman Catholic, but Dale could not abide the rituals and what he perceived as draconian [?] rules. We settled on a Lutheran tradition and worshiped there together for more than 20 years. Then another poke into my internal crevices revealed a longing for something more.

A bout with cancer in my mid-fifties brought about a more intense spirituality, and I became a seeker of deeper soul nourishment.  A physical therapist invited me to a bible study at her church, a fundamentalist Assemblies of God congregation, and I was hooked after the first meeting. Bible study encouraged Women’s Retreat, which led to weekly attendance at that church and volunteering at the Welcome Desk and in the Nursery. Talk about a long way from home . . . Roman Catholic to Assemblies of God. Who would believe?

I began to dig deeper and found that in those early formative days I succumbed to “Catholic guilt.”  In our early courtship, my husband would tease, “My God is bigger than your God.”  When I finally moved past his hubris to realize that he was correct, I found my bigger God.

What would have been my life had I discovered this God earlier?  Because I tend to immerse myself in things, I might have traveled to third world countries as a missionary.  But then I would have missed some crazy fun times that also shaped my life.  Like singing with a piano player in a small corner bar near my home, or enjoying 10 wild weekends at my sister’s home in Indianapolis for the running of the Indy 500, or serving as a labor and birth coach for 11 years.

As I approach my 70th birthday, some realizations have recently been trapped on the tip of the cotton swab.  I have a slightly jealous nature.  I’m working hard to quash it, but every now and then, it rears its ugly head, like when a fellow writer in my yoga class received abundant accolades for a piece she shared with the class. The sting was momentary, but I wish the jealousy never flared. She’s a writer; I’m a writer. She wrote eloquently about yoga; I did not. The teacher does not like her more than the rest of us because she wrote a lovely piece. I’m learning to trust my sense of self-worth. On to the next piece of hidden dirt.

All marriages are not equal. Mary’s husband brings her flowers every week; mine plants seeds so that I may enjoy fresh tomatoes and cucumbers all summer. He also takes me shopping every Mother’s Day to buy plants and hanging baskets to enjoy for months. April’s husband creates delightful trips; mine raves about the details of our Italy vacation that I spent six months planning. I’m learning that it’s about perspective, recognizing your gifts, and appreciating what you have.

My sister’s children have intact, happy marriages and I am delighted. My kids are divorced: one a struggling single mom; the other happily remarried to her childhood sweetheart. I’m sadly done with the anticipation of more grandchildren while cousins and siblings await the joy of more additions to the family. But, I am content. I have two healthy grandsons whom I cherish. I am twice blessed.

What do I know now about who I am?  I am nearly 70 and reasonably healthy. I love life. I adore my children and grandchildren. I am a contented wife. I have a lovely home in a beautiful part of the country. My spirit soars every time I see a hummingbird visit my feeder or inhale the rich, intoxicating perfume of my vibrant fuschia-colored peonies.  If I die tomorrow, I know that I am living my best life and my eternal future is assured. I guess most of the lint has been removed from the crevices, but I’ll keep on searching.  It’s never too late to improve.


Lois Guarino Hazel retired as a project editor from Rodale Press Book Division after 20 years. Her freelance work has appeared in: Sun Magazine (Reader’s Write), and online at and Lois writes flash fiction, memoir, essays, poetry and is working on a book of haiku.