For years Chris has told me that we should hire a housecleaner. Before you read too much into that, it’s not that I’m a terrible housekeeper. I’m just, like everyone, busy. It’s also not that he is an unhelpful husband. No, I managed to marry one of those rare, neater-than-his-wife husbands, the sort of husband who will come home from work and start vacuuming without being asked because someone traipsed sand across the carpet.
Years ago, when we started homeschooling, I gave up on cleaning the house on weekdays. I once wrote in an essay for prospective homeschoolers, “Let dust turn to velvet atop the black piano.” I got very good at letting velvet form on my piano. It was enough to work with the kids during the day, to make meals for everyone, to keep the laundry chugging along. I saved housecleaning for the weekend.
Which meant, in theory, that most Saturday mornings, Chris and I would wipe down the kitchen, vacuum, dust, mop and generally rid the place of all the marks the kids had made. But many Saturdays, what would actually happen is that we’d both start cleaning, but then I would have to leave to drive a kid to a birthday party. Or to buy a present for a birthday party. Or to buy presents for Christmas. Or to shop for groceries because friends were coming to dinner. Or to shop for groceries because I’d ignored groceries all week, along with the dust on the piano.
And often, Chris would stay home and clean the house. He’s a keeper, I tell you! But it’s no wonder he wanted to hire a housecleaner.
I have several friends who have housecleaners. This seems like a perfectly reasonable decision, to hire someone to do a tiresome chore so you have more time to do things you would rather do. Many of these friends seem to have fun weekends. They hike. They go to museums in San Francisco. They stay home and sew.
So why did I have misgivings about hiring a housecleaner myself? For one, I didn’t like the idea of the kids growing up in a house where someone else cleaned—where they didn’t have to learn how to clean themselves. Of course, this would be a better argument if I actually followed through on making the kids clean. Yes, they clean their bathroom every few weeks (but not until their sink grows a layer of pink sludge around the drain) and I make them clean their rooms (which usually means making beds and putting clothes away, and rarely means dusting and vacuuming.) I suppose the message isn’t that they don’t have to clean because the housecleaner will do it; the message is that they don’t have to clean until a parent goes nutso and hollers This sink is disgusting and no, you can’t use my bathroom!
Second, I have this old-fashioned notion, probably spun from a childhood reading Little House books, that I should be able to clean my own house. Chris and I built this house, on a lot left by the 1991 firestorm that ravaged the East Bay hills. We chose every tile, every damn cabinet pull. If we cared that much, shouldn’t we be able to keep it all clean? It seems like a basic form of self-sufficiency, like the ability to cook our own meals. When I hear about people who can’t cook, who have unused stoves and every meal from a restaurant I get a what’s this world coming to dread that surely reveals how close I am to fifty. What’s this world coming to if we can’t mop our floors and scrub down a toilet once in a while?
I can’t really comment on the state of the world, but I can comment on the state of my house. And it’s gotten grimier over the years. Not super grimy—if you’ve visited you would probably say that my house is quite clean, probably because I am very good at the art of the fifteen-minute wipe-down-the-obvious-surfaces-and-shove-everything-else-into-the-closet routine. Or the house is clean because my husband cleaned it. But in general, things were slipping. The dust had grown thicker. The showers had grown slimier. It was a good thing there were no longer babies crawling on my kitchen floor.
I talked to my friend about her housecleaner. The cleaner comes every two weeks and stays for three to four hours, depending on whether she has help. She cleans the house, washes the sheets and remakes the beds. (Clean sheets! Every two weeks! What nirvana!)
But instead of asking for the housecleaner’s number, I started thinking. Four hours every two weeks. I could do that.
I made a plan. Every Tuesday afternoon I would clean for two hours. One week downstairs, the next week up. Mr. T is twelve. He saves his computer time for the afternoon anyway. He doesn’t need me.
And so I began. I load up my iPhone with podcasts—Writers on Writing and Spilled Milk are favorites—and I tie on my cleaning apron, which is like a maid’s holster with cleaning spray dangling on each side, where the guns should be. I get my guns loaded, I start up a podcast and start scrubbing. And it’s bliss.
Bliss! For two hours I ignore my inbox and my to-do list and I simply clean.
There is something unexpectedly satisfying about wiping down surfaces when you aren’t in a rush to do something else. I polish the Provencal tiles in our kitchen, the ones that we ordered sixteen years ago and that I still love, until they glow. I wipe prints and spatters from the bathroom mirror I found in an antique shop. I dust family photos and smile back at them.
We bought these things. We made these memories. It feels good to honor them by keeping them beautiful.
I laugh out loud when Molly and Matthew discuss apple varieties on Spilled Milk (Brown Snout! Cat head! Grannywinkle! Magnum Bonum! Hunge!) This must only make me look more like a deranged maid–me with my spray cleaner holster. I vacuum and mop and work up a sweat. When I’m finished, the floors smell of orange peels.
My house? It’s looking good.
I’ve kept up this plan for a month now. One Tuesday I had an appointment for a haircut and I got grouchy that I had to postpone my cleaning time. Surprise of surprises, I enjoy cleaning if I’m not feeling anxious about getting other things accomplished. Or feeling bitter that it’s Saturday and we’re not walking around Lake Merritt.
I find myself putting things away more often, because who wants to clutter your shimmering counters? I wipe down the kitchen sink, to maintain the Tuesday gleam. I glance around my house and smile, and take photos, instead of thinking, Damn, I really need to dust this place.
Chris is not a slacker; he finds other things to do around here: washing cars, painting baseboards, pruning trees. But I think he likes our new cleaning lady–although maybe she should get a cut of what we’d have paid that other housecleaner he wanted. This cleaning lady would take a shoe allowance.
The house is clean and I am happy. So, come on over! Just not on Tuesday afternoon.