The Trials and Tribulations of Houseguests

§  A young friend won’t be making her annual trip to stay with me and visit her “Indiana Family” during this difficult year.  But I hope she will get a smile from this essay!  §

Listening to a radio show as I drove one afternoon, I caught part of a discussion on the topic of appropriate behavior by houseguests when making visits.  The subject intrigued me because  it had often been covered by those original Agony Aunt columnists, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, to whose advice I’d been devoted in adolescence.

The interviewee, asked to explain what houseguests should not do during a visit, launched into a total bitchfest about guests who, having risen in the morning before their hosts, proceeded to brew themselves a cup of coffee and (horror of horrors!) use the mug which was sitting out beside the coffeemaker for that morning cup…their host’s favorite coffee mug!

 Now, I rarely have houseguests, and I don’t even own a coffeemaker; anyone unfortunate enough to be lodging with me is going to discover that instant coffee is the best available.  Tea, now, tea is a different matter.  Depending on their preferences, they might get a good quality teabag of regular or flavored tea, or even loose tea brewed properly using a tea ball in a china teapot.  But, those facts aside, the truth is that, as a good hostess, if I was providing for a houseguest who I knew might be waiting for a “cuppa” before I rose in the morning, I would have set out not only a cup, but a spoon and a spoon rest and real sugar and sweeteners and a napkin, all awaiting their use.  I’d have made certain they knew where all the other accoutrements were to be found too: the toaster, the bread, butter, jam, and milk.  And, even though I do, yes, have a favorite mug, I damn sure wouldn’t have gone on public radio making an ass of myself because a guest in my home had availed her or himself of simple accommodations.  To do so would be disrespectful.

Respect, as I learned from those long ago Agony Aunt columns, is what smooths the relationship between host and guest.  Both acknowledge the disruption to their usual lives, and treat one another with courtesy, making an effort to be especially respectful to smooth over any bumps in the road during a visit.

A much younger but extremely wise friend once related to me that her mother, having come to visit, was both very surprised and complimentary when she found the apartment beautifully cleaned prior to her visit.  My young friend, while admitting that her home was rarely in that condition, remarked that it was simply respectful to prepare for a guest’s visit by cleaning her home.

I agreed wholeheartedly.  Having a houseguest means that one looks at one’s home differently.  The worn but still useable bath towels that are perfectly suitable for my own bathtime would be disrespectful if put out for a guest to use. The chipped mug is placed to the back of the cabinet, and the nicer ones, including that favored mug—why wouldn’t I want a friend to have the best?– set forward prominently.  Bedsheets are fresh, TVs are turned down low when a guest has retired for the night, and favorite foods are offered.

But, returning to the memory of those Agony Aunts columns, I recall long, serious deliberations on whether a guest should, on the final day of their visit, make the bed (because that’s simply a nice gesture to one’s hostess) or remove the sheets and pile them on the mattress (since they now have to be washed).  Silly debates such as this enthralled me when I was a mere teenager, years always from having a home of my own, much less a houseguest.  Even more interesting (and often hilarious), were the disputes—many of which flamed into fury—over nosy houseguests, those people who snooped and pried into places they had no business being, and how they should be handled.

Putting a jack-in-the-box into a drawer to pop out and send the prying houseguest shrieking, was often favored. I particularly loved the suggestion by one host who claimed to have hidden notes in each drawer which said, “Too bad you decided to snoop here.  I put poison on the handle, and I have the only antidote.”

But then came the rejoinder from a woman who was obviously suspected by her friend of being one of those very sneaks, a charge which she strenuously denied.  While staying there, she related, she’d needed a thread of dental floss, something which she hadn’t packed.  She opened the medicine cabinet to search for some, and was sent screaming back from the sink as a cascade of glass marbles came tumbling out of the cupboard, pouring like a loud river onto the sink and bouncing across the bathroom floor.  When her host came charging up, ready accusation at her lips, the terrified guest was crouched in a corner, surrounded by marbles, stuttering, “I just wanted dental floss!  Just dental floss!”

I seriously doubted that the friendship between the paranoid host and the shocked houseguest continued following this fracas.  After all, it appeared that, just like that belligerent radio show speaker, someone had forgotten the first rule of having or being a houseguest: Respect.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Agony Aunts”,
to be found in the archives from February 16, 2018. 

Household Chores: Love ’em, Hate ’em!

§    I took an informal housework survey of some of the women I know and garnered the following intel on the housekeeping tasks that everyone loves and/or loathes.  §

I had an acquaintance once who explained rapturously that she just loved running the vacuum.  I looked at her like she’d lost her mind. There are two household chores that (despite doing them with monotonous regularity) I despise above all else: running the vacuum and changing the bedsheets. I have no explanation as to why these chore irk me so much. I don’t avoid them, but I absolutely and completely loathe doing them.

Of course, this same woman was one who, when guests were present and the evening had not yet quite wound to a close, always made everyone a bit uncomfortable by beginning to wash up the snack plates and wine glasses before people had even begun making “going home now” noises. Since her house was, like mine, an open floor plan, there was no disguising the fact that she was in there splashing merrily in the dishwater; she’d been seen to snatch up a cheese plate just as a guest popped the last toothpicked cube into his mouth. The sight of an unwashed dish in her sink apparently drove her to distraction, as she mentioned once while pointedly eying the neatly rinsed-and-stacked plates and glasses in my own sink whileI tidied up after a get-together. On that occasion, I thought she choked a bit as I turned out the kitchen light and walked away from the sink. But as I’ve explained before in an earlier blog post (The Dishwashing Analogy, 06/29/18), those dishes were going to sit in the sink until at least after breakfast the next morning, and quite possibly lunch, when enough would have accumulated to waste my time and water on. This was despite the fact that I actually enjoy washing dishes–so much so that my dishwasher is run only once weekly, and then just to keep the belts from rotting from disuse. I find dishwashing to be almost a meditative act; it proves to me the truth of what one of my grandmothers (a simply marvelous housekeeper) told me: When the hands are busy in a simple task, one’s mind is completely free.

Nevertheless, Grandma’s maxim doesn’t explain why some of those simple and repetitive tasks just drive me, or others, to the brink.

I took an informal housework survey of some of the women I know.  (I did not include any men because, [a] there are few of them in my life; and, [b] the only man I know who actually willingly does housework is my son-in-law).  I garnered the following intel on the housekeeping tasks that everyone loves and/or loathes. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were a lot more responses for the “LOATHE” column than the converse—including one heartfelt reply from a woman who said bluntly that she was “totally over” enjoying any form of cleaning. But what struck me in their responses was that I found myself not to be so odd, after all: tasks that one person simply could not stand doing were actually enjoyed by another person.

Into the Love To Do column fell the tasks of vacuuming (obviously, I do not choose my friends on the premise that companions must think alike!), folding laundry, washing windows, dusting, mopping, and (bizarrely) shampooing rugs. Many more responses, though, were entered into the Loathe Doing category, which included the self-same dusting and washing windows, along with scrubbing floors, cleaning baseboards, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning toilets…and on, and on, and on. I genuinely felt the pain of one woman who replied that there was nothing worse than dusting furniture that had grooves and curves and hollows. And I nearly dropped to my knees and praised heaven that I, OCD as I am, had never, as one friend explained, been in such housekeeping competition that when she learned someone had put three coats of wax on her kitchen floor, she rushed home to put a fourth coat on her own!

I am already in the throes of spring cleaning, the madness of which always overtakes me at some point near the vernal equinox and Easter–cleaning out the cave after a winter’s habitation, I always think of it. Preparing for that psychological and physical onslaught, I’ve also been considering my informal housekeeping survey. It struck me that, since few of us, if any, are in a financial position to hire our housework done, then how sad that we can’t all form some sort of housekeeping commune.  Each person would bop happily about to the houses of the others, accomplishing the tasks that she finds enjoyable—while someone else, who actually likes doing  her most hated chores, works at her home accomplishing her  “Loathe List” of housework.

If only…!  I feel absolutely certain that, not only would our homes be totally spic and span, we’d all be a much happier bunch of women!

 

Clearing the Clutter

§   In the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit. §

A friend has been in the throes of a start-of-the-year Clear the Clutter episode, and e-mailed me about the mess, the lack of serenity in the process, and the things that are driving her to sheer madness, such as a water spot on the ceiling and a broken cabinet door. She took down all her wall hangings, she explained, because they were no longer (in the popular parlance of the day) “giving her joy”, and now there are little holes all over the wall. Pain, and yet still no gain!

I sympathized. I regularly endure the pain of clearing the clutter. In fact, a favorite cousin and I, each raised in similar childhood circumstances of dealing with an alcoholic parent, have, as a result, a few (well, perhaps in my case, more than a few) control issues. This might be a problem except that, for each of us, we have channeled our control issues into what we consider the healthiest possible outlet: We are OCD housekeepers. Cleaning Freaks. Totally, almost unforgiveably, neat. I have even been heard to say–totally without irony–that my house, dirty, is cleaner than most people’s homes are when clean.

In the scheme of things, there are far worse ways that we could have channeled our need for control.

But, as I counseled my distracted friend, in the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit.

The best way to handle my need for clean control is, I’ve discovered, to use the time as a sort of meditation. Yes, that water spot on the ceiling is incredibly ugly, but does it represent something more to me?  Does its ugliness evoke an ugly memory? Is that stain caused by falling raindrops evocative of tears? More than I need to plaster and paint, do I really just need to cry?

Yes, my cabinet door is broken; why, then, haven’t I either fixed it, or called a repairman, or just saved up the money to replace it?  Okay, so there are now little holes everywhere in the walls where I took down the photos of relatives who caused me pain, deciding that a family connection was not worth the reality of having to look at their faces and remember how they abused me. And, yes, I know that a dab of putty and a lick of paint will fix those holes, so why am I so absolutely furious about having to do that?  Is it because it’s just one more damn thing I have to do? One more problem they caused me? Or because I know I’ll be doing this, as I do everything, all alone and without any help?

And why, in the name of heaven, have I been keeping all this crap?! Why didn’t I get rid of it a long time ago; in fact, why did I ever keep it in the first place? It isn’t just a case of “Well, this is actually useful, and I might need it”, now is it? No. It’s fear. It’s fear because so much has been taken from me in my lifetime that hanging on to something I don’t really need—something that could possibly be of use to another person—seems to smother that uncomfortable, burning feeling deep within my spirit that I won’t have enough. It’s a barrier, this clutter of stuff I don’t really need and am not using, and don’t even particularly like. It’s a moat against emotional attack.

But in truth, there is no moat, for the real emotional attack is within myself: my habit of castigating myself with cruel words; of rerunning dark videos in my brain of old, damaging scripts; of hearing the voices of abusers, some now long dead, forever muttering criticisms and invective, all within my head. And there is no moat, no barrier, tall enough, deep enough, wide enough, to stifle those soft, invidious whispers of pain.

I have developed a word for myself, one less prejudicial than being OCD or a compulsive housekeeper: I am a “Clear-ing” Lady. I am constantly processing old emotional damage through the method of cleaning my physical surroundings. And that, I’ve decided, is okay. It is just who and what I am, and I am no longer going to chastise myself for a personality quirk that at least results in pleasant and orderly surroundings.

But the most useful technique of handling an episode of clutter clearing, is, I’ve discovered, to go deeper, and to use both the time and my actions to put my soul in order, as well as my home.