“Hi, Mary. I’m at your house.”
Words that could strike terror in the hearts of any mother with toddlers.
Only I don’t have any toddlers anymore. My youngest will be seven this summer.
So why did the phone call coming from the guest in my living-room to my workplace stop me cold?
My sister Joan had stopped at the house to pick up her extra garage sale items from last week, and when she didn’t find me there she asked the kids where I was, then called me. I’ve been filling in at my other sister’s consignment shop every other Saturday.
“I stopped to get my garage sale stuff and I see it right here.” my sister continued, cheerfully.
Too cheerfully. Was that glee I sensed in her voice? This was the sister who’d had one child to my eight. One child. How much mess could one single child make? My eyes narrowed as I tried to discern what she was really saying. What else did she see besides her garage sale box I had sitting in the foyer? The empty boxes on the front porch I had yet to put away from our sale? Katie planted on our couch watching television for the third day in a row due to a stomach virus? I’d left the living-room fairly clean when I’d gone to work that morning. My heart stopped as I contemplated the possible damage to our living room during my absence that day. Empty cups on the end tables? Cereal bowls? How much of a mess could the kids have made since morning? Wouldn’t my husband David have cleaned up behind them? (I had no idea. It turns out David was taking a nap upstairs and Abby had designed and built an entire city on the floor using practically every toy in the toy box) In the next instant I wondered how far she’d gone into the house? Did she go into the kitchen on the pretense of needing a drink and see the sink full of dishes? Did she use the bathroom and note the mirror I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning or the toilet that one child refuses to flush ever since it overflowed once? Had Joan wandered into my office to look on my desk for the envelope of cash I still owed her?
Then it dawned on me. My sister could see the box of unsold items, but she didn’t see her money. Maybe all she wanted was the money I owed her! I quickly explained that her cash had been in an envelope on my desk. Then, lest she was heading towards my office, I hastened to add that my husband had needed cash that morning and I’d torn it open and given it to him, planning on writing her a check. I didn’t want her to go in the office and see the one corner that was filled with my garage sale finds from the 35+ city-side sales I’d attended the previous two days.
Why would I have automatically assumed my sister was judging my less than stellar housekeeping habits? No, more than judging, but gleefully reveling in the disaster area I call home? And feeling superior? (I, on the other hand, have felt a perverse sort of pleasure in the fact that I am too busy and too creative to be neat. And even considered that the woman with the neat house just doesn’t have anything better to do with her time than clean house. Go figure. It works both ways)
It isn’t just Joan. Had any female friend or family member stopped at my home yesterday morning, I would have felt the same. I would have been embarrassed for them to see my house in that state. It was always much worse when I had several small children underfoot. At least Abby, nearly 7, doesn’t strew newspapers, magazines, toilet paper and Cheerios throughout the house anymore. She makes her messes, plays with them, and does a reasonable job of cleaning up. Now it is just as likely to be my mess in our house as it is to be a child’s; the boxes of books from a book sale, the piles of clothes from a garage sale, the kitchen table set up as a makeshift desk for my writing. I can name two sisters (but won’t) whose homes might look similar to mine if I dropped in unannounced, but I can also name two who would apologize if a spoon was sitting on a counter, they are that neat. And one of them is Joan.
Joan, the sister who had one child and couldn’t possible understand Abby’s penchant for filling an entire living-room floor with tiny animals, blocks, books, and Barbie accessories.
Joan, the sister who is generous to a fault and who gives of her time to help re-do her mother’s home. Joan, who has persevered and finished nursing school while working. Joan, the nurse who I turn to to patch up my husband’s hand at a family gathering and whose stoicism in the face of illness, injury or even death, is admirable to me. Joan, who just recently got into couponing and who has finally given me someone to “talk deals” with. Joan, who has always encouraged my writing and who surprised me when she came to my home to buy my first book. “Of course I want it!,” she said,” You’re my sister, and you wrote a book!” And Joan, the only female who has ever asked to see my binder full of writing.
Oh yeah, that Joan.
I was ashamed after I hung up the phone yesterday. Joan wasn’t there to judge me or my house. She stopped by to pick up a box and some money.
It made me think about the day I met another homeschooling family at the park. Our kids hit it off and she invited us to her house. We stopped at my house on the way. I had no qualms about inviting her in. My house was immaculate that day. After I gave them a tour of our house, we walked to theirs. The minute we stepped through the door I didn’t know where to look. I was shocked and appalled. And embarrassed. For her. Her house made mine at its worst look neat. I couldn’t even see the floor, it was strewn with toys, books, papers, and stray pencils. The couch was completely covered with laundry. At least I thought there was probably a couch underneath the mess. She hastily apologized and I quickly reassured her that my house is usually much messier, but I could have truthfully added: But never like this.
We sat and drank tea out of chipped cups and I tried not to stare at the obvious stains on mine, wondering if they were indeed tea stains, or something else. But I soon got over the initial shock. It wasn’t long before I relaxed and realized that not only was theirs a busy, homeschooling life, but that she (the mother) had been dealing with what was yet an undiagnosed illness that forced her to nap each afternoon while her children entertained themselves.
My two youngest never had such fun at someone’s home as they did those two hours we spent in that wonderfully messy house. Not only was there five computers to play games on but several real, live animals to pet, as well. We’ve been to their house a few times since and it is never as messy as it was that day.
Did I judge her that day? If I am honest with myself, I did a little, but mostly I was relieved and pleased that my house was cleaner and neater.
There have been homes I’ve visited that are as comfortable to me as an old pair of tennis shoes. They usually are not fancy houses and they often have some flaws: a couch with lumpy cushions, kitchen chairs in need of repair, a table marred with scratches. They are not the pristine houses you see in the magazines, the ones we women are all supposed to strive for. Like me, my home “cleans up good.” But sometimes life gets in the way of all that cleaning. I allow that same possibility in my good friend’s houses, in those of my sisters who are busy with career or children. And I feel most comfortable in a home that has a little mess in it; the basket of unfolded laundry, the socks that need to be paired, the schoolbooks on the table, or some dishes in the sink.
I think back to those days as a young mother when I’d meet another mother and refuse to invite them to my house because it was messy. I wasted a lot of time worrying about what someone thought of my housekeeping instead of cultivating what could have been some rewarding friendships. It shouldn’t have mattered. They were coming to see me, not my house. And frankly, there was a good chance that their house was in a similar state. Or worse.
It still bothers me.
But I’ll get over it.
Stop on by. The door is open.
Just give me fifteen minutes notice.