Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The housekeeping chronicles - Self-pity and Slovenliness

Photo from the Library of Congress digital collections

This post has been updated from a post originally published at The Women's Colony in March, 2010.

In February of 2010, Rita, our housecleaner, called to tell us she won’t be working for us anymore.

Rita had been cleaning our house for ten years. When we met, she was the mother of a child at my son’s school. She was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, relatively uneducated, and had escaped a bad marriage. House-cleaning was her only means of support.

Today, Rita is married to a wonderful guy, has a college degree and her daughter is in graduate school. We were among the few clients Rita kept after she started a new, great job, but finally it was over. Her marriage, and some chronic health trouble made her decide to drop her clients. She won’t be cleaning our house anymore.

Before you denounce me as a Los Angeles elitist who employs servants, know this – I am not used to having “help”. My mother never had what we used to call in those days a “cleaning lady.” Up until she left her house, at age 82, she did all her own cleaning. [The Man I Love] and I first hired Rita ten years ago when I had a job offer that required me to travel away from home, sometimes for as much as a month’s time. My husband made a bargain with me – he would support my decision as long as I agreed to hire someone to clean the house once a week.

Truth be told, Rita wasn’t that great a housecleaner. She never tackled the cobwebs in the ceiling of our post-and-beam house. She constantly miss-filed kitchen utensils so you couldn’t find them. She often failed to empty vacuum cleaner bags for weeks, so that as she rolled the thing across our carpets picking up dust, an equal amount of dust spewed out the outtake vent. She cleared kitchen counters by gathering anything left upon them into teetering piles she left on the dining room table – we called them “Rita piles.” She refused to do windows or laundry, and one time she applied wax to our hardwood floors that deposited sticky, dirt-trapping goo that we still have to scrub off in places.

But it was awfully nice to come home on Friday evenings to clean bathrooms and a freshly made bed. Rita tolerated the three big dogs who shared our home over the ten years. And she was a good friend, a funny person, and we grew to care for her and her daughter.

But now it was over. So it was up to us. Or up to me. I was pretty sure [The Man I Love] – although he contributes in his way – was not going to take on much more of the housework than he had already been doing.

As far as my qualifications for the job go, you can ask my mom about my cleaning habits. I was nagged to clean my room until she finally gave up, and just asked me to keep the door closed. I had a few tearful tiffs with college dormmates about housekeeping. And my first New York City apartment-mate cited my inability to contribute to cleaning efforts in our break-up dispute.

In the theatre, the Propmaster or Propmistress job is similar to that of a housekeeper. They clean floors, tidy the set, organize everyone’s personal belongings. As a young woman, I toured the U.S and Canada as a Propmistress, and I remember during one after-show evening at the hotel bar, the stage manager confided to me that I was the “messiest Propmistress” he’d ever worked with.

It all goes to show that I am not a very good housekeeper.

Yet – I managed a house, a husband, a dog and a growing child for the first 8 or so years of my marriage, with only minor complaints from my co-habitants. I think [The Man I Love] and I are well-matched in our tolerance for a kind of relaxed slovenliness and casual disorder. Of course, he is an anthropologist who did his field work in a third world country…..

Rita cancelled a week on us before she broke the news. We were busy, and let time pass. And last week we spent some time away from home. By mid-March, I realized that it had been three weeks since any serious cleaning has gone on in our house. Three weeks of unvacuumed rugs, unswept floors, and the same sheets on the bed.

It was brought home to me when I walked in the door one lovely spring evening home from work, and, frankly….our house smelled dirty. I looked at my kitchen cabinets and realize there were food spills down the front of them. There were furry dust-bunnies the size of cats under our bed. In a porous house like ours, in a rural environment, dust and cobwebs and bugs accumulate, and when you share your home with a four-legged creature that sheds hair and walks in mud, you end up with quite a murky stew on your hardwood floors.

So after ten years of doing pretty much nothing beside daily dishwashing, I vowed to start a regimen of regular cleaning. It would be a timely change, since budget cuts had hit us as it did many that spring, and not paying a weekly housecleaner was a saving.

I signed up for the FlyLady email tips. I vowed to shine my sink! I knuckled down to clean our hardwood floors.

The funny thing is, I didn't really know how to keep house anymore. I had no engrained habits, no learned short-cuts, no timely tips. I didn’t know how often certain tasks were supposed to be done, and when to do them. I’d purchased scores of assorted mops, dusters, and cleaning implements for Rita over the years and never used them myself.

It was hopeless. I could barely keep up with the laundry, let alone the dog hair. By April, [The Man I Love] was going through Angie's List and newspaper want ads. So....into our lives soon came a new dynamic. Tune in later for an introduction to our new housecleaners.

To be Continued.....


smalltownme said...

I'm interested to hear how this goes. I am not an attentive housekeeper myself.

I spent the first two days of my vacation cleaning my kitchen from bottom to top (backwards, I know, but the toekicks called me first). But today I just puttered away at some crafty projects.

Tomorrow the kitchen will be a disaster from all the cooking.

21 Wits said...

Ah yes the never ending will be interesting to hear the rest of the story, and how it ends!

Anonymous said...

I remember this post from March. Then and now, it makes me feel much better about my housekeeping habits. I know I should do better, especially as a SAHM, but my interest level and the frustration of picking up after my the guys gives me plenty of excuses to throw up my hands in despair.
I miss Juanita. She was someone who made living in El Paso a great experience!