Knock! Knock! Ready or not?

#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 DT516immaculate. 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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Significant Others

Do you believe in love at first sight? Love at first sight took about three weeks for me after I met the man I sometimes introduce as my first husband (so far he’s also my only husband). It took him a few months longer, but I don’t hold that against him anymore.

We have a friend — let’s call him Pat because that’s his name — who met a young woman — let’s call her Teresa — one evening and that same night told her she was the girl he was going to marry. She scoffed at him. He was right. For him, it was love at first sight and it’s stood the test of time.

So I know love at first sight is a real thing, even though it’s never happened to me. But instant friendship? That has happened to me. More than once.

You meet someone new. They have a certain spark in their eye and you start talking to each other and you laugh in the same places. And you know that this is a person you want in your life.

A good friend is someone you can laugh with, cry with, confide in, share a story or a life with — someone who makes your eyes light up. Maybe you haven’t seen your friend for years but, when you sit down with them again and start talking, it’s like the conversation never stopped.

Once my best friend and I got the sillies at a middle school band concert because one side of the band director’s staticky pants crawled up his leg during the concert and his socks didn’t match. We were laughing so hard we almost got kicked out! And we were the parents!

Then there was the time another best friend and I baked fortune cookies with Bible verses inside. It was a lot of work — the cookies had to be folded up while they were still hot and pliable, right out of the oven. We laughed while we burnt our fingers just so we could set these cookies out with tea and coffee for the rise-of-meeting fellowship. And what was so funny, you may well ask? You didn’t see the Bible verses we choose. There is a ton of weird advice in the Bible.

I remember a lovely afternoon over mugs of tea on a friend’s screen porch. She was explaining the meaning of a phrase used by Turkish storytellers. I thought I’d never forget it. I did forget it, but I remember the delight in the story and the company.

Before I got sick, I was more gregarious. I was always going somewhere to do something with somebody. But chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia has knocked the stuffing right out of me and visits with friends are fewer and further between than I would like. And it may take me a day to two to recover. It is hard to maintain friendships when I spend way too many hours limp and exhausted, not up to the effort of conversation. On those days, I have a legion of other friends patiently waiting for my attention: Books.

Books are the good friends whose company is offered in just the right measure at just the right time. They are never offended if I close the cover and close my eyes for a rest. They just wait patiently until I return. Here are a few who have graciously visited with me lately.

 

 

This book has a deceptively simple premise. The Mom of the title is lost in a crowd at a the train station and her children and husband search for her. For months. I was spellbound. This seemingly straightforward plot surreptitiously meanders into a narrative meditation 51fkgbcts7lon family and sacrifice. Like the Mom’s children, I was left wondering exactly what happened. The last pages offered not so much a resolution, as a graceful, grief-ful acceptance.

Because the story is set in South Korea, a geography and culture I know next-to-nothing about, the book took on fairy-tale qualities for me. The contrast between the illiterate, hard-scrabble mother and her educated, urban children grew larger and larger as I turned the pages. If the setting had been somewhere in the United States, my own assumptions — about the characters, the landscape, “reality” — would have overwhelmed what was actually written. I would have missed the beautiful questions set forth in the story.

The author has many other books to her credit and is popular in her native country. I look forward to reading more of her books and hope the translation reads as smoothly as this book did.

 

 

This is the full title of the P.G. Wodehouse collection as purchased through Amazon for my Kindle (only $1.99!). It’s a title worthy of P.G.Wodehouse himself!

The first pages of the first P.G. Wodehouse book I ever read were much like meeting that instant new friend. The sparkle in the eye! The underlying optimism! The cheerful exuberance whilst surrounded by human foibles! Let’s let the man speak for himself:

” . . in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tram car. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

Truer words were never spoken! (Speakers at the James River Writers Workshops are forever telling us this.) The language is perhaps a bit antiquated, a bit English, but still fresh and lively at one hundred years old. Wodehouse just zips right along and the phrase “rollicking good fun” surely applies, even as I am stretched out on my bed, motionless except for my eyes scanning the printed page.

5e31e3f2042d8816a3131d3eb9884efcNothing truly tragic happens in a Wodehouse novel. There are no nasty surprises. There are always motorcars and sweeping lawns and long galleries and conniving aunts and well-heeled financiers and dotty Lords and fair young maidens and impoverished young men in love with them who somehow still have a valet and cigarette money. Even whenWodehouse introduces a “working stiff” the reader knows things will come out all right in the end. Wodehouse is not Charles Dickens.

Wodehouse’s England disappeared before he quit writing about it. Two World Wars hastened the changes. His novels remained stuck in an era long gone. Most of the plots, like historical romance, are set against a background of wealth. The characters are insulated from real human misery.

Wodehouse also wrote stories of teenage boys at school, playing cricket. Blow by blow accounts of cricket matches, however momentous in the lives of the boys, are not my cup of tea, no matter how fine the teacup. Now “feather-brained Bertie Wooster and his sagacious valet Jeeves” (as the collection’s biography refers to them) — these two can make me laugh. They are fine companions on a grey winter’s day.

 

 

Of course, I had to read a historical romance novel this week. Once a Duchess is from Elizabeth Boyce, a writer previously unknown to me who is a friend of a friend. I think I chose her first book for my introduction to her work.

The initial set-up was intriguing: we find a young woman and her single remaining 17385220servant living in a humble and chilly cottage. The disgraced ex-duchess, shunned by society after her divorce for adultery, is out of funds (hence the chill inside the cottage) and faces hard choices. She takes a job as a cook at the local inn and — of course — the Duke shows up in the dining room unexpectedly. The plot had the requisite number of twists, and a one or two on top of that that I never saw coming, that kept the Duke and his one true love apart until the last few pages.

Some blood was shed, some tears were wept, some unforgivable words were uttered. Apologies were made but not accepted. Ships were loaded with cargo, bound for South America. But true love conquers all.

This book was the quintessential historical romance experience. Never make the mistake of assuming that these books must be easy to write. They aren’t. And it’s always nice to discover a writer accomplished in my favorite genre. Boyce’s next book in the series is ready and waiting for me on my Kindle.

 

  • March by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

 

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And this graphic novel is waiting for me next. It’s non-fiction and doesn’t promise any happy endings, so it will not be the reassuring comfort of light conversation. It will take a bit more energy to read.

According to my husband and youngest son, and the reviews I’ve read, March will be well worth the energy it will take out of me to read it.

Some friends are like that. Sometimes I need time to recover. Those can be the best friends of all.

What are you and your friends reading?