by Mary Elizabeth Raines, © 2021
Even though I grew up in a spotless home, housekeeping has never been something for which I’ve had a strong instinct. I do love my home to be neat and clean though, and over the years, by gritting my teeth and going against my natural inclinations, I’ve gotten a little bit better at keeping things reasonably tidy. It was not always so.
I went to a music conservatory for college in the mid-60s. In our freshman year, my delightful dormitory roommate, Marta, (who would later wind up as an assistant stage director at the Metropolitan Opera, a Broadway performer, and then as a script supervisor on TV shows like “Star Trek” and “ER”), began eating a particular brand of candy bar and saving the wrappers. She kept an untidy growing stack of them on her night table, along with a lot of other clutter.
“Marta, why are you keeping all of these candy bar wrappers?” I asked.
“Because if you collect enough of them,” she said, “you can send them in and be entered into a contest.”
“What’s the prize?”
“A pony,” she replied gleefully. “I’ve always wanted a pony!”
“But what if you win? Where would you keep a pony?” I cried.
“No problem,” she replied cheerfully. “We can keep the pony right here in our dorm room. Nobody will ever know.”
She said that because our room was always an enormous mess.
Marta and I had originally been assigned different roommates. I was in absolute awe of mine. She was immaculate. She could fold her panties into perfect squares,–I never figured out how she did that,–and she arranged her books in order of height, and her bed was always made, and she wanted the lights out every night at exactly 10 p.m., immediately after she finished reading her nightly devotions. Marta had a roommate with similar admirable qualities.
The two of us couldn’t have been more different from our assigned roommates. Not only were we supremely messy; we were also night owls. Night after night our roommates, needing to have the lights out, would banish us from our rooms to the small lounge on our dormitory floor. Marta and I soon discovered that we had a lot in common, and we bonded. It wasn’t long before we plotted a scheme to ditch our respective roommates and join forces; our only concern was that it might hurt their feelings. It turned out that our respective roommates had gotten the same idea, and before we could even broach the subject, they informed us that they wanted to swap. Fortunately, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and everyone ended up well matched and happy.
Marta had more money than I did, and she possessed an expensive and gorgeous wardrobe, most of which lay strewn across our floor. She would wake up in the morning and sit on the edge of her bed, tossing piles of clothing into the air with her foot and saying, “Which puddle shall I wear today?” She always looked fabulous, by the way.
In those days, there were weekly room inspections performed by a floor monitor, an older upper-classmate who got free room and board in exchange for being strict with us. If your room wasn’t clean, you would be grounded. Worse, if they found forbidden substances–specifically alcohol (pot & drugs were still a few years away)–you would be permanently expelled from the Conservatory! Marta and I were neither wild nor party girls, but, at age 18, that prohibition was far too tempting to ignore. There were a couple of popular shampoos in those days named Prell, which was green, and Breck, which was golden brown. We filled an empty Prell bottle with creme de menthe, and a Breck bottle with ginger brandy, set them out prominently on our bureaus, had a little sip whenever we wanted, and nobody ever found out.
Every week, only minutes before the monitor showed up for our weekly room inspection, Marta and I would desperately grab armfuls of our stuff, including candy bar wrappers, and shove it all helter-skelter into our closets; the stacks went up nearly to the ceiling. Only our booze stayed out. Then, during the inspection, we would stand to one side looking as innocent (and tidy) as possible, while praying desperately that the dorm monitor would not open our closet doors. She never did, and we never got grounded. (Well, at least we never got grounded for having a messy room. But that’s another story.)
And, although it distressed her, to my enormous relief, Marta did not win the pony.
Once, and only once, she and I went on an unprecedented cleaning binge. Afterward, we gave tours of the room to our dorm mates. They were all quite impressed. We heard comments like, “Oh, you have a radio? I never knew you had a radio,” and “Wow! So there was an actual floor under all that stuff?”
Over half a century later, Marta and I are still close friends.
AS I GREW OLDER
My habits did not improve quickly. When my son was three years old, I pulled out the vacuum cleaner one day. He began to jump up and down, clapping his hands in delight, as he cried joyously, “Company’s coming, company’s coming!”
My child may also have grown up with some confusion about the purpose of an oven. This is because for much of his childhood, I gave piano lessons in our home. My students would be accompanied by one of their parents. To my dismay, the kitchen could be openly viewed from the living room, especially from the couch where the parents sat. It was an unfortunate situation for someone who was not all that great at keeping up with the dishes.
Did you know that, with only a few minutes’ notice, a whole lot of dirty dishes, as well as miscellaneous food items, can be crammed into an oven? There’s just one problem. You must take care to remove said dishes when preheating the oven to bake something. I won’t bother to tell you how I learned that.
Following are some other useful ways to disguise messiness that I have learned over the years. Not only are these touch-ups speedy; in performing them, rather than being scorned by those last-minute guests, you will be admired for the fantastic energy they think you are putting into housekeeping. Read on.
When the house is a total wreck and you discover to your horror that someone is going to pop in soon, here’s what you do. You quickly pull out the vacuum, the mop, and a caddy full of cleaning products: furniture polish, windex, paper towels, that sort of thing. Leave them lying around randomly. It will look as though you have been caught in the midst of doing deep cleaning.
If there are piles of clothes lying around, I have two solutions, both of them simple and fast.
1. Place a big open suitcase near the clothes to make it look as though you are packing for a trip,
2. Open an ironing board and stick an iron on it. Bundle up the clothing and shove it all into a laundry basket. If you have time, for a perfect finishing touch position one of the garments on the ironing board as if you were caught in the midst of ironing it.
When the bathroom is icky and company is arriving, the solution is simple. Sprinkle a whole bunch of cleanser, like Comet, into the sinks and tub, and for a finishing touch, leave a cleaning brush inside the toilet, which makes it looks as though you were caught in the middle of scrubbing. You can do this in under a minute, even while someone is knocking on the front door. Before you open the door, muss your hair a little (not difficult for me to do), quickly don rubber gloves, grab a broom to hold, and, for the finishing touch, look as weary as possible (also not difficult for me to do). Gets ‘em most every time.
If all of that doesn’t fool them, you can take on the attitude of one of my friends, Peggy, who is a warm human being and talented writer (her articles have been published in places like Reader’s Digest and the Chicken Soup inspirational book series), but also a sloppy housekeeper. Adding to Peggy’s overall untidiness, she has lots of indoor cats and possesses no sense of smell. You get the picture. She tells me that when people visit, she never cleans up ahead of time. Rather, she says, as her guests enter her home, they look around, sniff the air, and immediately feel superior to her and thus very good about themselves. She considers it her contribution to humanity.