“Who’s coming over?” My daughter asked this question innocently enough, and when I answered that we weren’t expecting anyone, her reply was telling: “Then why are you cleaning the house?”
It does not seem like a good sign that my daughter believes one never cleans if guests are not imminent. But she’s displaying a clear sense of cause and effect: if Papa’s hands are seen clasping a broom handle or dustpan, 95% of the time this means our doorbell will be ringing with a few hours. If Daddy busts out the vacuum, too, the odds increase to 100%. And if the kitchen floor gets mopped? Well, that’s as good as writing “Grandmother coming” on the calendar.
In between visits, when we’re fairly certain no will see how we live, the various cleaning tools languish locked away in the closet. Magazines pile up haphazardly like glossy stalagmites, rice from Chinese take-out forms a floor-level halo beneath Diva’s dining room chair, and kitchen counters disappear under the detritus of family life: lunch boxes and drawings and mittens and phone chargers and Japanese erasers and 0% interest offers.
Let me assure you: we’re not actually rolling about in naked filth; no will ever walk in and find houseflies buzzing around a sink full of mold-encrusted dishes or walls smeared with dog poo. But should a Cheez-It fall out of Diva’s lunch box, or an errant grape escape the fruit bowl, it’s not impossible that the fallen item could enjoy a few days liberty before I ever get it swept up—and I’ll only notice it then because I’m preemptively seeing the floor through the eyes of whatever person is arriving later.
Growing up in my grandmother’s house, I enjoyed the pleasures of clean living despite doing little to help keep things that way. In preparation for every Sabbath, Grammy engaged in an hours-long top-to-bottom sweeping-dusting-vacuuming ritual. During the week, she mostly concentrated on her continual fight against clutter—never letting me or my brother leave toys, clothes, or books just lying around the living room or dining room, the places company might see.
When it came to our shared bedroom, all bets were off. My brother and I didn’t have a lot of toys, but those we did have—a plastic octopus, for instance, or a train that made real whistle noises—ended up on the floor because we had no shelves or bureaus. We didn’t ever make our beds—they were as rumpled when we crawled into them at night as when we crawled out of them in the morning. This was only allowed because our room was upstairs, a part of the house that guests never saw. I believe my grandmother’s exact words were: “If you want to live in a sty, you go right ahead, but I’m not gonna.”
She meant for this statement to express disapproval of our slovenly behaviors, but she inadvertently sent a different message: The dirt no one can see won’t hurt anyone. I so internalized this maxim that, as a grown-up, I instinctively fill the little-used porch with random junk, pile objects on the hidden-away stairs leading up to the second level of our condo, and generally turn our bedroom into a free-for-all of clothing items I don’t feel like putting away. Indeed, the entire house becomes fair game in this logic: on any day that no one but us comes through the front door, then everything inside qualifies as unseen, and can thus be a mess.
Fortunately, all of us in my little family are social creatures—which means people are coming over a lot. The steady stream of arrivals gives me impetus for cleaning and keeps me from sinking beneath the clutter most of the time. Truly, having friends saves us from our own worst impulses. But in that rare week when no one is expected and our housekeeping slowly devolves, even I—a guy who worries as much about the illusion of being clean as actually being clean— can reach my limit. When all countertops are lost to view like sidewalks under this year’s snowdrifts and the couch looks like a doll version of the Jonestown massacre, I sometimes do the unthinkable: I clean just for us.
That’s what got Diva so confused: she caught me sweeping for no obvious reason. I explained that, despite how it sometimes seems, I do actually believe that it’s healthier to live in a clean house. I wasn’t talking about epidemiology so much as mental health. I confessed that when our house is too messy for too long, it makes me feel a little crazy.
Only after the words were out did I consider what lesson I’d just taught my daughter. Having already demonstrated that the primary reason for cleaning is to fool others, I’d now told her that housekeeping is something you save until you’re on the brink of insanity.
So you can imagine my surprise when one of her old teachers told me that Diva was the neatest kid in the room, often goading her classmates to pick up the play area. “My daughter?” I asked, eyes wide—and the teacher assured me that yes, Diva was a bit of a nudge when it came time to clean up. I was grateful, relieved, and baffled all at once. And then I considered that her school persona was the public antidote to one more lesson she’d learned in private: Home is where the mess is.