26 Aug A Clean House

The only time we clean the house, I mean really clean, is when we have guests coming. We had six overnight house guests visit last week but we couldn’t get the house quite clean enough because we were racing to finish the interminable pantry-rehab project. We have plenty of excuses for not keeping our place clean. For starters: it’s a big house. And we’re always working on it. Or we’re working on something else. And we have four pets. It’s remarkable how much hair a pet sheds. Under bureaus and beds we find hairy dust balls as big as mice. The dust you see in most houses is nothing more than the homeowner’s shed skin cells (we shed 40,000 a minute). But our house is notable for animal hair and sawdust and plaster dust too. Sometimes the dust gets so bad, Jill finger-draws hearts and messages in it across the surface of our expansive dining room sideboard.

Our three week marathon of working on the butler’s pantry generated a lot of saw- and plaster dust because I had the belt sander out to shave down stubborn door-edges. I also used the grinder to slice into wood and plaster in tight places. In short order, the grinder makes the wood smoke and turns plaster into gritty fog. The lenses of my eyeglasses are nearly opaque from scratches caused by construction dust. This happens every year to my glasses.

My mother-in-law keeps a house so clean, I’m not sure where to sit when I visit. In fact, during our last visit, we had a dirt incident. A single clump of dirt liberated itself from the sole of my shoe after Jill and I returned from a walk. The dirt fell onto the kitchen’s bright-white linoleum floor. It was a narrow band of mud-black dirt, about the size and shape of a nail. In fact, my father-in-law thought it was indeed a nail. “What’s that?” my mother-in-law exclaimed. “It looks like a nail,” my father-in-law answered. They and I and Jill were gathered around it, leaning forward for a better look. “It’s dirt from my shoe,” I explained, feeling a little embarrassed. My father-in-law shook his head doubtfully. “Looks like a nail.” “We’d better get that up,” my mother-in-law said firmly. “Right away,” my father-in-law agreed. Jill volunteered to fetch the broom and dust pan. She swept it up, then I took over and swept some more, just for good measure, as my in-laws watched with satisfaction. I feared that more of the offending stuff would drop from my shoe before we got out the door.

Had this happened at our house, one of us one have kicked the dirt aside or simply pinched it up. In either case, we’d have put off sweeping. Not that we dislike sweeping. In fact, we have a broom and dust pan on every floor. I prefer the vacuum. I have a big one and a hand-held. Jill refuses to vacuum unless under a lot of pressure, as when we had to pull the house together last week before our six guests arrived – while I finished putting together the pantry cabinets.

Vacuum cleaners didn’t become common in American households until well into the 1920s. Until then, people had carpet sweepers and, of course, brooms. If they were serious about getting at dirt, they hung their carpets on the clothes line in the back yard and beat them with a carpet beater, a tough wire wand that every household owned. Sidenote: the first item stolen from our house while we were first working on it (eight years ago) was an antique whisk broom I had set among my tools in the front room.

Jill jokes that if I die before her, she’ll let the house close in around her – dust-thick cobwebs sagging from every wall – like Miss Havisham’s house. It wouldn’t take much, I tell her. We’ve got enough web-making spiders in the house to accommodate her. The spiders – called Pholcids — came with the house and are quite abundant. They look like daddy long legs but they keep to themselves in little tea-cup-sized webs. Sometimes the male and female build a web together. I’m a big fan of the Pholcids.


My point is this: if you come here, we’ll probably clean up before you arrive and you’ll think, My goodness, how do they keep up with this big, old place? The answer is, We don’t.