#1 Secret for Hosts
My house is a mess right now. All the kitchen stuff is in open boxes set on, around, and under the dining room table. There is a gaping hole where the kitchen sink used to be and the countertop is in pieces at the end of the driveway. Every piece of furniture is not-so-lightly dusted with yellow pollen, an annual offering from Mother Nature.
So when my good friend Mary calls and says “I can arrive tonight!,” what do I say?
A. Oh, dear! I’m sorry, but that will be inconvenient.
B. Which hotel will you stay at?
C. What time will you get here?
I picked C. Then my husband and I scurried around. We moved the lumber out of the guest room and put the furniture back where it belongs and washed the sheets and picked a bouquet of naricissi for the upstairs bath. (It was clean. We hadn’t been washing paint brushes in there.)
Once, during a party at my house (a different house than this one), one of the guests told me that she envied how I could invite people into my home —- and here I forget exactly how this tactful woman phrased it — but what she meant was that she envied how I felt free to invite people in when my house was torn up. We’d ripped out the wall-to-wall carpeting without refinishing the scruffy flooring or replacing the baseboards.
She implied that she did not always feel free to invite people over. My friend lived in a large, handsome home, beautifully decorated. She and her spouse worked hard to keep it nice. They were generous hosts and set a lovely table. Even the landscaping was immaculate. When would home like hers not be ready for guests?
And, if I lived by her standards, when would a home like mine ever be ready for guests?
We lived in this house more than ten years before the landlady agreed to sell it to us. We rented because it’s a duplex and my mother lived in the upstairs. Now her former apartment is a guest suite with a connecting door to our living room. But after decades as a rental, this house suffered from a lack of TLC. As owners, we’ve done some major work, but we can’t do everything at once. We may not live long enough to get around to everything.
The roof is new but the replacement windows are not holding up so well. We ripped up the carpet here, too, and haven’t (yet) refinished the floors. Plaster crumbles around a few of the windows. The woodwork is splotchy with mismatched paint. You get the picture. Not “Architectural Digest”.
And then there’s the dust and dog hair.
In the house I grew up in there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. This was less true in my bedroom and not true at all in my brother’s room. The remainder of the house was neat and dust-free.
The only telephone in that house was tethered to my father’s double sided desk. The phone was a black, heavy unit with a rotary dial. Daddy seldom used it, but, in his mind, telephones belonged on desks — so it was on the desk in the most uncomfortable room in the house. And if you were the fidgety sort and fidgeted with anything on that desk — a pencil maybe — you’d hear about it later. Later, because you were almost certainly not gabbing away on the phone and fidgeting with pencils or the like while Daddy was sitting on the other side of his desk. If Daddy was at his desk, phone conversations were as brief as possible and pencils stayed where they belonged.
That house was always ready for company but company was a rare thing for my parents. Occasionally, we might find Mama with a friend at the kitchen table with cigarettes and coffee when we got home from school, but never on the weekend. Our friends might be around during the day but seldom for a meal and never overnight. There were no dinner parties and few gatherings of any kind at our house.
My husband is not like my father, but I have more than enough a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place genes for both of us. We have to compromise. He tries not to leave his workboots where I’ll trip over them and I try not to nag.
When our four children were little, neatness was not a top priority. There was still a place for everything and important things — my keys, my glasses, the checkbook — stayed there. But laundry, toys, books, records, and magazines migrated freely, in herds and solo. We vacuumed and dusted anything at eye level. (Once, a friend cleaned for us after my father-in-law’s death. She lifted, intact, a hollow skin of dust from a vase way up on a high shelf.)
If we invited people in for a meal or a party, we cleaned up first. But our friends usually just showed up unannounced and made themselves at home. It was a messy house, in need of a good cleaning and repairs, but there was always a place to sit and a cup of coffee for anyone who stopped by.
My mother did her own cleaning, and took pleasure in it, until, at 85 and with only a few weeks to live, she hired someone. I cancelled the last scheduled cleaning, since Mama was no longer responsive. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe the sound of the vacuum cleaner would have soothed her.
Mama expected me to keep as clean a house as she did herself, even though there were many days I couldn’t get out of bed, laid low by CFIDS/fibromyalgia. My husband was on the road for weeks at a time and my boys still at home had jobs and school and their own lives and barely kept up with the dishes. But I still had a China cupboard with open shelves and, once, Mama walked up to it and drew a line in the dust. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll have to clean it!” I didn’t. I summoned what energy I had and chewed her out. (And I got rid of the China cupboard.)
What does all this talk of dusting and neatness have to do with being a good host?
Everything and nothing.
Like everyone else, I appreciate a well-maintained home, with art on the walls and flowers bordering smooth, green lawns. I am happy for my friends who wake up to this everyday. I like visiting them in their beautiful homes, but I doubt that I will ever acheive this sort of perfection.
I like my space neat and orderly for myself, so I can find my keys or my scissors or the electric bill or my shoes. And it’s easier to keep up with things now that there’s just the two of us, even if our dog sheds. There are usually dust puppies drifting around. If we invite people to visit, we clean before they come, as much as we can. If friends drop-in, we like to open the door and say “How nice! Come in!” And then we sit down and enjoy our guests.
Guests are not ticket holders for the Spring Home and Garden Show. If they are, and they come to our house, they’ve come to the wrong house and garden!
But I can make you a cup of tea or coffee and listen to you tell me about your life or the book you are reading (or writing) or your latest project, whatever it is. I hope you leave knowing I was happy to see you.
And that’s what I want , too. I want to feel that you are happy to see me. Isn’t that what we all want?
So don’t wait until your house is perfect — perfectly clean, perfectly neat, everything repaired. Open your door with a smile. Apologize for the mess and the car hair if you must — but just say “Come in. I’m happy to see you.”
This isn’t the Spring Home and Garden Show.
This is your life.
P.S. Can you read WELCOME written in the pollen/dust in the photo above?