I’ve had a visitor, Saturday and Sunday, which made me very happy. She’s a former colleague from work who has become a very good friend.
Used to be, when Mother came to visit, I’d go on a cleaning binge, and now that Mother’s gone, I do it for visitors. I’d been brought up better, you see. A house should be spotless. Cleaning should be done on a rotational basis. Mondays for laundry, Tuesdays for ironing, Wednesdays for dusting, tidying, mopping and vacuuming, Thursdays for washing floors; Fridays for special projects like the drapes, polishing silver or cleaning out a cupboard; Saturdays for shopping; Sunday for Church and meditation.
Or that’s how it used to be – before wash and wear clothing. Before automatic washers and dryers. Before stainless steel cutlery. That’s how it used to be when I grew up. Girl children were trained to take over all these functions and Mother was an exacting task master. She knew she was preparing us for life. She was preparing us to be acceptable, admired even. What would people think if they came into your house and saw a speck of dust.
On the days that Uncle Keith came, we did extra cleaning because he was exceptionally tall for his time – six foot three, maybe – and Mother imagined that when he came, one of his guest duties would be to examine the premises for dust lurking in high places. Before Uncle Keith came, we got out the ladder and dusted the tops of door surrounds. On the upstairs landing, we dusted very carefully between the posts of the banister and railings. We dusted the light fixtures. We would not have wanted him to go home after a visit and expound to Aunt Kay, his wife, on layers of forgotten dust That could not be borne!
I hated all that mindless cleaning. I do understand its value, but I don’t have to like it. Avoidance is my favourite response to cleaning requirements. I had wonderful excuses to get out of it when I worked full time.
When I lived with Mother, caring for her, she already had a cleaning lady who came in once a week to help her with the harder tasks, even though, in her lifetime, conveniences had been invented and the tasks had become a quarter of what she had needed to do when she first got married.
Friday was the housekeepers day and in Mother’s leisure days of retirement, no engagements for lunches, tea, bridge parties or walks in the park would be made for a Friday morning.
Esther, her housekeeper was “professional” domestic. She came from an early pioneer farming family in the Lower Fraser Valley. Her parents had felt that she would always have work if she had this training and they were right. She knew what to do. She was immersed in the feminine arts of housekeeping. Though she was from a farming family and they were not wealthy enough to have such niceties as silver plate and fine china, she knew and understood the care and keeping of them. She knew how to set a table. She knew all the arts of laundry – how to get out certain stains, how to keep things looking white – and the arts of pressing clothes to look crisp and sharp, rivaling or surpassing how they now come, straight out of a dry-cleaning establishment.
She knew how to polish wood so that it gleamed, without using silicone laced sprays from a can. She knew how to fix scratches in walnut furniture. As children, before housekeepers, we had the task of taking fresh walnuts and rubbing them over minor scratches in the French polish of the dining table, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing until the scratches turned dark with the nut oil and the white stains from water damage or heat regained their dark hue.
Esther knew how to organize her work efficiently. In the three hours that she came, she would start with gathering up everything for the laundry; separating out whites and lights from dark clothing; putting the washer on to work while she dusted, mopped, tidied; cleaned the venetian blinds, polished the mirrors; cleaned the bathrooms; vacuum the rugs.
For a little extra money, she would do mending for Mother. She was also a fine seamstress. When Mother came home from Bangkok after a tour in the Orient, she brought back some fine Thai silk yardage. It was Esther who made up the cloth into light, airy summer dresses for her.
Somehow, the work of the house has been tainted in our minds as menial; but it was never so to Esther. She was proud of her abilities and proud of her finished product – a well-kept home. She walked to out place, decked out as a lady carrying a generous-sized designer carry-all; when she arrived she would change into cleaning clothes; when she left, she was again dressed as a rather elegant lady with clothing she had designed herself, a hat and gloves, and would walk back to her home as she had come.
Now, as I stood looking at my new home, my very own home, my dream come true, I was appalled at my housekeeping skills. I had not really dusted since I had taken possession of the house. Oh, occasionally I had wiped away something obvious. I swept the floor when my feet started to stick on it; the laundry gets done when I need clean clothes to wear. But now I had a guest coming. A very neat and tidy guest. Ack!
I had cleaned it out thoroughly when I came in (I can live with my own dirt, but not with other people’s dirt), but had done very little since. In my defense, I’ve been working pretty hard at dispersing Mom’s estate and I’ve had more of my share of boxes of stuff impeding movements in my house. There was not much opportunity to do vacuuming, for instance, because I couldn’t have moved one around the house with all the stuff that had been unceremoniously plunked into my house as we hastily emptied Mother’s house for sale and brought the unknown boxes of stored items to my house for sorting, distributing or chucking.
I could hear that guest going back to the office saying, “It’s a cute little house. Very cute. A heritage house. But you should see the dust on top of her furniture! And the kitchen floor? Looks like it hasn’t been swept in a week. The windows? I don’t think they’ve been cleaned since the ‘Fifties. Her front steps are covered in green algae. The rugs are littered with bits of fluff and dirt tracked in. There are boxes everywhere. I don’t know how she lives in it!!!”
I could see myself being nominated for the “Housekeeping Failure of the Year” award.
My friend came and went. We had a lovely time. Food is always a more important thing to me than cleaning. I gave her two impressive meals. Lunch on Saturday was a home made fennel soup and a Caesar Salad. I put out some Camembert and paté to have with French Bread. We had little slices of an apricot and almond paste that she brought for dessert. For dinner, we had Basa filets and fennel root in fresh parsley and garlic butter with rice. I still had fresh frozen blueberries in the freezer which I thawed, heated and put over a tiny portion of ice cream. (We are watching out line.) I used the dishwasher (which I only use as a dish dryer when I’m alone) so that I didn’t have to do dishes.
When I dropped the milk jug on the floor and an entire jug of milk spread all across the kitchen from the living room side door to the outside back door and from there to the floor beneath the kitchen sink, she helped me mop it up.
“Never mind,” she said, “the jug didn’t break. That’s got most of it. You can get the rest of it when you get around to washing the kitchen floor.” I picked up a nonchalant hint of laxity in that comment – “when you get around to it” – as if she, herself would tolerantly let what was left, if any, to dry and flake as milk does, until she had time and inclination to wash the floor properly.
We went out walking in Kanaka Creek Park in the early afternoon, and then I wanted to show her Jerry Sulina Park on the Pitt River dykes. It was a fine sunny day with the Golden Ears peaks still holding onto winter snows and the purple crocus and tiny white snow drops pushing up through the pale gold winter grasses. There were lovely reflections of the clear blue sky marrying with the mountains and the grass tangles and wintering ducks gliding chevron patterns over top of them.
We spent the evening beading, which she came prepared to teach me, and watching an English murder mystery. She confessed over the beading tray that she had just left everything, at home – the dinner dishes from Friday and her breakfast dishes – in the sink; she hadn’t done laundry since her husband had left on a vacation two weeks before. She didn’t like housekeeping any more than I did!
She left early on Sunday morning. I went out into the yard and did a bit of maintenance there. I’m still pulling out or cutting out winterkill for the irises and the phlox. There’s lots of tree debris from the windstorms to be picked up that I haven’t bothered with since it’s been too rainy to go out there and enjoy the fresh air and to do raking. I puttered at putting together a compost bin that the next door lady gave to me when her house sale deal went through. I tied up some honeysuckle so that it will thread long the trellis slats above the solid fence. I watered some plants that the neighbour gave me – some fall crocus, liatrus and butterfly bush.
The grass seedings that I planted in the fall are coming up, covering the trampoline area from the previous owner’s arrangments. Crocus are pushing through. I planted two big bulbs that might be Allium or might be Elephant Garlic. I took some time to think how I might put in pathways and more plantings since I don’t really care for too much lawn in the back yard. It was glorious – the physical activity, the fresh air, the warming sunshine.
So, who wants to clean? I’d much rather be out in the back garden with time to think, with time to dream, breathing God’s good air and taking in the mild scent of the old cedars that surround the property.
And thank goodness for visitors, or the house would never be cleaned!