This piece was first published in the Nevada Appeal about twenty years ago, while I was still contributing to the Fresh Ideas column. While a few things have changed in that time, I think it’s time to share it again. Watch this space for a few household tips from a certified old wife in the weeks to come.
I just love my new vacuum cleaner. It’s named after both a president and a dam and it really sucks. No, really. And it sure has been getting a workout lately. My house gets a thorough cleaning every January because I honestly enjoy that clean sweep feeling after the holidays. Putting everything away and getting life back to normal is strangely satisfying.
I say “strangely satisfying” because I am not exactly a great housekeeper. I always feel a little inadequate because of this failing. I was raised at a time when mothers were supposed to do everything—while wearing heels and pearls no less. The expectation is still there in my heart of hearts in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, as much as society has changed in the past fifty years, when someone sees a messy house, they don’t judge the husband; they judge the wife.
Don’t get me wrong. My house isn’t about to be condemned by the health department or anything. Our bed is made daily. Dishes are done every evening, usually by my husband. Vacuuming, dusting, bathrooms and laundry are done weekly. I wash the floor when I see dirt or when my shoes begin to stick. And I always clean ferociously and frenetically for company.
But day-to-day tidiness escapes me. If you drop by unexpectedly, you’ll likely see dirty dishes on the counter and a pile of newspapers, catalogs and magazines on the coffee table along with Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, a coffee cup, a water glass, several remotes. One jacket is usually draped over a kitchen chair instead of hung on the hook by the back door. Several pairs of shoes litter the floor.
What can I say? Like most of us, I look to my mother as a role model for running a house. And bless her heart, Mom frequently found something more interesting and important than housework—coloring or doing puzzles with us children, sewing, baking, painting, gardening, leading the Brownies or Cub Scouts. My mother would even let me invite all the neighborhood kids in to make Christmas cookies. Or candles. Or a six-foot-tall paper-mâché’ tiger for the homecoming parade.
There were, however, other kinds of mothers. When I was little, we lived in the country: four houses in a little cluster amid orange groves in old Orange County, California. The four kids from those houses were each other’s only playmates, running in and out of sprinklers and houses and laundry hung on the clotheslines, except that we NEVER —and I mean NEVER—played in Marcia’s house. Her mother was ALWAYS—and I mean ALWAYS—cleaning house or washing floors. Every day. It made a pretty big impression.
That wasn’t how I wanted to run my household. I’ve long thought that if a house were too clean, too perfect, that the people in that house were probably being neglected. Or becoming neurotic. Maybe that was just a rationalization but I much preferred spending my precious time with my kids to housekeeping. As my grandmother used to say, “You will have dirty dishes every day of your life, but you won’t always have children.”
This laid-back style of housekeeping is not without rules however. When my husband and I were first married we decided on a strict division of labor: everything inside the house was mine, unless it was broken; everything outside the house was his, unless it had flowers. That division doesn’t quite work anymore, but you get the idea. Rules promote fairness. There is an expectation of shared responsibility.
My daughters would tell you that one of my prime directives was, “The first one to complain is the first volunteer.” And sparked by Joanna’s once-too-often-complaint that her pink pants (or her ruffled blouse) weren’t clean, two very little girls learned to do their own laundry. Now twenty-one and twenty-five, they tell me—with appropriate expressions of disgust—it would be gross for another person to wash their clothes. Even their mother. I count that as a victory.
Looking back now, I know that my tolerance for clutter and dust was higher than my tolerance for whining. And my desire for a peace and quiet was stronger than my desire for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
To me housework is like studying for exams when I was in college. I never really finish. I just do the best I can in the time left after all the other more interesting and important stuff in my life.
And just about anything is more interesting that housework.