Friday, August 20, 2010

Housework Reconsidered (Babble)

I’ve never considered myself to be someone interested in housework.  Anyone who ever saw my room as a teenager could testify to that.  But my mom keeps a beautiful home, and so did my grandmother.  My whole life I’ve observed how they both knew how to keep their homes neat and welcoming.  Despite the time and energy it took to help run a small business, pursue a serious art career, and raise three children, my mom was probably most famous among my friends for always keeping the cookie jar in our home stocked with homemade goodies.  My grandma’s house was always almost comically free of dust and her basement was better organized and less cluttered than most people’s main rooms.  I wondered for a long time if I got some different combination of genes that kept the development of those skills from sparking my interest.

When we bought our first home my mom gave me a giant book by Cheryl Mendelson called “Home Comforts” which is a gigantic housekeeping tome with almost 900 pages that covers everything from what to stock in your pantry to how to organize your laundry schedule to how to wash a floor.  It’s a nice book, but at the time as I flipped through it, I mostly felt inadequate.  Besides, I generally associated housework with wasted time.  Repetitive chores using up hours of my life that could be used for more important and lasting things just did not take priority, and according to this book I would probably do it all wrong anyway.

But now I have the right house and I get it.  I finally get it.  I have never owned or collected things that made sense for the space I was living in.  I acquired things that would work in the place I one day hoped to be.  I am finally in that place.

Housework everywhere else was frustrating because there was never a place for everything.  There were always things being shifted from one spot to another, but there was never a final spot for everything to rest.  That’s stressful, and there is no way to keep things organized like that.  Ideally I should have only kept objects with us that worked in the various places we occupied, but it wasn’t possible.  Violin makers collect a lot of wood and tools and books over a long period, and my husband put up with a bench and a band saw at one end of our bedroom in our second apartment in Pennsylvania.  I’ve never really had a decent practice space, even in the other house, because wherever I wanted to play viola was borrowed space and I had to put everything away when I was done.  When you share too small a space with other people, their possessions are almost offensive.  Ian’s meager collection of books bothered me anytime I was short on shelving, and that’s just beyond unreasonable.

But now we have enough space for our things and it makes all the difference.  I have some empty shelves and drawers since the move which is like a miracle has happened.  There is a ton of storage space left for the kids to grow into.  I have a music room.  It’s not a giant room, but I don’t need a giant room.  I need a space where there is enough elbow room to teach, a spot to sit, and room for a keyboard.  Because I have a dedicated music room I can hang all our instruments up.  I have practiced more often since moving into this house than I did probably in the past two years in the last one because the ease of just pulling my viola and bow off the wall and playing for a few minutes here and a few minutes there is wonderful.  Getting everything out of the case used to take up all the time I had to practice with most days, so I didn’t bother unless I had to.  Practicing is fun again.

(Our music room!  See the violins and violas hung up on the wall in the back corner?  Super handy.)

When everything is organized it’s much easier to take care of and keep nice.  The funny thing about finally being relieved of all the clutter is that looking for things isn’t very dramatic.  When I lost my camera I spent more time digging through the minivan looking for it than I did in the house.  In the old house there would have been many searches through piles of stuff several times over.  Now I stand in the dining room briefly and think, “Well, it’s not here.”  Because when all the surfaces are clear and you know that this drawer is just light bulbs and that one is just extension cords, there just isn’t anywhere worth looking.  I hadn’t realized how nicely organized things were until I did that search because I literally went through every room in the house like that.  It was peculiar and satisfying at the same time.  I like that things are neat and I enjoy keeping them that way now.

A big help with clutter is the fact that Quinn has his own room and a huge closet (his closet is crazy–we could literally fit a twin size bed in there if we chose) that he doesn’t use yet.  He has always shared a room with his sisters and isn’t comfortable sleeping in his own room, so in the meantime it’s toy central.  Most of the toys live in that one room that I don’t have to walk through or look in and it’s amazing.  My kids used to play in a family room at the top of the stairs in the old house, and keeping a path clear so we could get down to the bathroom in the dark without killing ourselves was a constant battle and one I resented.  It’s still obvious when you walk into our house that we have kids, but now the living room holds a dollhouse, a train set, a box of legos, and a pachinko machine, all of which can be used and then put away without making our house look like a daycare center.  The struggle against the tide of toys used to wear me out and make me really grumpy.  There is room for kid space and grown-up space alike in this house, and that is sanity saving.

The next thing that makes a difference is having such a pretty house.  It has been so beautifully preserved with its original woodwork from the 1920’s not covered in gloopy paint or the stained glass ripped out and sold at some point.  The house is full of pretty details and it’s a privilege to live here.  I don’t want it to fall to rack and ruin under my watch.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like everyplace we lived before was unpresentable, because everyplace else was fine in its own way.  I have never lived anywhere in a manner that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with people seeing.  I could keep things neat enough, but in terms of charm, most of that we had to bring to the places we lived by what we put in them and how we used the space at hand.  Our last house was nice, but people usually commented on the things we did with it rather than on the house itself.  The new house is simply a beautiful house.  People have liked what we’ve done with it, but everyone’s initial reaction when they come here is to admire the architecture and the layout and the details.  It’s interesting and lovely without us having to do anything.  I’ve also never lived anywhere that anyone envied.  That’s an odd adjustment, but that’s also a different post.

The point is, this house not only needs to be cared for in a way that requires an understanding of good housekeeping skills, but it’s fun to do.  Making sure the woodwork gleams is fulfilling in its own way, and doesn’t feel like wasted time.  Also, you can see things differently in this house.  The rooms are bigger and you can see things from farther back and at longer angles than I’m used to.  Dust is much easier to spot in this house on the dark woodwork.  I remember my former neighbor when she lived here saying something to me about dusting and I thought to myself, “Who dusts?”  Well, Ian and his allergies are thankful that this house does in fact need regular dusting to look right and I don’t really mind doing it.

Technology helps a lot, too, in terms of embracing certain housekeeping chores.  I’ve finally arrived at state of the art 1950’s technology and have a dishwasher.  How did I live with three kids and no dishwasher?  Between that and the garbage disposal I feel like I’ve been released from some kind of dishwashing prison.  I scrape the plates into the sink and put them in the dishwasher.  I know most of you just read that sentence and are not impressed because you do it all the time, but seriously, I scrape the plates into the sink and put them in the dishwasher!  I push a button like Jane Jetson and walk away and the dishes get clean!  I read to the kids before bed and at some point randomly stop and say, “Guess what?  Right now I’m doing the dishes!” and they cheer and we go back to reading.  Or playing.  Or doing any number of things I couldn’t do with them before because I was chained to the sink scrubbing plates and forks.  I used to wonder how much better it could really be, since you’d still have to handle all the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher so I wasn’t sure how it would save much time, but it does does does it really does.  And the garbage disposal is good because I grew up with one and never got out of the habit of peeling potatoes into the sink, etc.  Now it’s okay.  Washing dishes is not frustrating anymore and I love to unload the dishwasher.  Maybe the thrill will wear off at some point, but right now it’s magical.

Plus there are ingenious old features in this house that help.  We have a laundry chute.  What we used to have instead was piles of dirty laundry.  Now everyone gets undressed and puts things down the chute, so the floors and tops of dressers are easier to keep clear.  Aden likes to help do laundry because the new washer plays a little music at each step, so a couple of times a week I’ll ask her to switch the laundry and bring the clean things up, and it makes a difference to have someone pitch in.

Now let’s talk floors.  I tried really hard to keep my husband’s needs in mind while setting up this house without him here, and part of that was getting rid of window treatments that trap dust, and getting rid of any carpeting.  We have one big rug in the living room, one decent sized rug in the family room, one that you can’t see under all the toys in the girls’ room, and the rest is hardwood floors.  I did splurge for a Dyson vacuum after the responses to my post about dealing with styrofoam so I can keep those rugs as clean as possible, and the rest of the floors I sweep a lot.  But the most dramatic floor change for me is in the kitchen.  I love my new kitchen.  I used to HATE my old kitchen because I could never find anything and there was no counter space and nothing fit in there properly.  The new kitchen is so much easier to use I can’t even do it justice with my words.

(Counter space!  And a breakfast nook!  And the spice rack area on the wall used to be an old ironing board cupboard.)

Anyway, my old kitchen floor looked like this:

And my new kitchen floor looks like this:

Aesthetically the first floor didn’t do anything for me, and the second one amuses me and I’ve never seen another floor like it which is kind of cool.  But here’s the important difference:  The second floor is FLAT.  Flat is wonderful.  The first floor was some kind of heavy duty tile that’s only redeeming feature was that it was the color of dirt.  Which was handy because there was no good way to clean that floor short of getting down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush or something.  It had grooves, and waves, and stippling, and my little swiffer mop was powerless against it.  When the kids spilled orange juice it ran down a crazy path in the grooves and left sticky spots that remained until I could find the time to get down and carefully scrub along all the crevices, which was never.  Trying to clean that floor after every meal or art project the kids did over it was a housekeeping nightmare, because even if you don’t mind clutter, you have to make some attempt to keep a kitchen clean, and it was a Sisyphean task.  But did I mention the new floor is flat?  Sweeping up and running the little swiffer mop over it is so easy it’s almost fun. 

A friend recently looked at me in surprise when I said something about my new routine and said, “You mop every night?” and I didn’t want to freak her out by admitting I sometimes do it after every meal just because it’s so easy.  (It’s not like I’m really mopping–I just squeeze a button to wet the floor and push the pad thing around any spots that look gross for a second.)  There was no satisfaction in it at the old house.  Now it’s simple enough I don’t mind.

Now, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this overly long post is truly insane because most of the things it lists as weekly chores I’m lucky to get to every six months (she wants us to clean and sterilize the garbage cans every week!  And when she cleans the fridge she unplugs it and pulls it away from the walls and scrubs everything and that’s just not happening), but it’s interesting.  No one wants to hear that the best way to clean the floor is on your hands and knees, but it’s true.  It’s a fun read now, even though the main thing I’ve learned is not to invite the author into my home because I will never meet her standards, but would I like it if my home operated the way she suggests and the pantry was always stocked properly and there were always clean sheets on the bed?  Sure!  It’s like a housekeeping fairy tale and one that I’m enjoying reading through.

I am not ready for anyone’s white glove test, and like any household there are always projects that need to be tackled and things to be organized, but for the first time in my life I feel like I’m capable of keeping house nicely.  Things aren’t perfect, but the house is usually in a presentable state at any given time because I can keep things tidy.  It’s not a waste of time because overall it saves me time to not be searching forever for what I need or trying to clear space to get something done.  Clean spaces are like invitations to do something interesting, like pull out a board game or create something or (Aden’s favorite) invent a new cookie.  I never thought it was hip to be messy, I was just never in control of an environment that I could manage before.  I’m not even claiming keeping house will hold my interest now that my husband is back and I want to spend time with him instead, but my attitude toward the whole idea of it has changed.  It only took 40 years, but I may finally be following in the housekeeping footsteps of some of the women I admire most.  (There’s even occasionally something good in the cookie jar.)

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