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Mapping out Mom's cleaning strategy

Spring cleaning is a pillow-fluff compared with that deadly summer ritual of cleaning for long-distance relatives.

This requires some math, along with a mop. The depth of cleaning is directly proportional to the distance these folks travel. You won't find this cleaning formula among Heloise's hints, but it's been understood and passed down from one generation of dusters to the next. (The formula is diluted, however, with each passing.)

For example, my mother switches into high cleaning gear several weeks before a visit from an out-of-stater. She's been known to paint rooms, hose down the house siding, and mop the driveway to prepare for a visit from her sister, who lives 2,000 miles away.

"Don't they have dirt in Florida?" I asked her once when I found her squatted behind the fridge, picking dust dreadlocks from the compressor.

"Not as much as we do in the Midwest. You know your Aunt Geraldine is clean as a pin," she informed me. "Here, I'm going to tip the fridge while you sweep off the bottom."

This same guest triggers an all-nighter of aerobic cleaning at my place, which basically involves herding the dust motes from the house into the garage. This is followed by a threat - to the kids and the motes: "Don't you dare open the garage door until the coast is clear."

After years of observation, I've calculated Mom's cleaning formula. For a visit from a relative or friend who lives within 25 miles, she wipes down the dining-room table. For 25 to 100 miles, she adds a vinyl tablecloth. For 100 to 1,000 miles, she starches and irons the embroidered peacock tablecloth.

For the 1,000-miles-and-more crowd, she refinishes the table.

The 25-miles-and-under folks rate a new roll of toilet paper. The 1,000-milers get the show soaps, arranged like pastel candy mints in the heart-shaped soap dish.