Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By popular demand: Why Clean and Orderly Matters

Republished here in response to reader requests, The Blushing Hostess Homekeeping essay, Why Clean and Orderly Matters.

Once in a while I will be confronted with a bit of ridicule because I insist that my home be orderly. Seemingly, even more unacceptable to some is my concern that our home also remains clean: Even in the face of toddlers and house guests. I work hard to see things are kept up and cared for, including ourselves. And caring for ourselves, my Husband and I have long agreed, means a clean and healthy environment for our family, not just a tidy one.

This desire, to keep things in order, developed over time. I was not born with it. In fact, I was a typical teenager with clothes on the floor and dressers spilling over with more clothes, keepsakes, and pony tail holders than I needed or cared to keep organized. The tack trunk in which I kept the contents of my life as a rider would have been in the same disarray but for some drill sergeant-like trainers that would not allow show riders to do anything but act the part of members of a dignified, respectable, and clean old sport.

Maybe I took a cue from them: Neat rows of shipping bandages, boots, and bridles gracing the inside of each tray in their trunks, richly stained saddles and bridles always cleaned, figure-eighted and placed carefully upon the pegs belonging to themselves and their riders. Everything had our names on brass plaques, everything about the way we took care of things was scrutinized by show judges who would mark a perfect ride to second place based on the cleanliness of a horse's tack tack or the spit and polish of a rider's field boot.

Maybe it was the homes we lived in and visited in Bedford as children: Clean, neat, decorated, and ever-prepared. My Mom kept sit-up straight rooms in which we did not loiter carelessly: They were for the more formal parts of our lives. I remember the way my oldest friend, Lois', mother kept her towels: In like colors in perfect fold orderliness. Also, the way the bar was kept at Seven Oaks, the home of another childhood pal: Perfect ruler-straight lines of mixers and European mineral waters (with and without gas) lined up next to the glamour girls of the bar: The champagnes, then the liquors, followed by the aperitifs and finally the old boys: Ports, sherry's, and Madeira's. And there was the careful decorative touches at the old Hope Farm in Katonah, where tissue boxes were always covered with an embroidered linen box holder on a dressing table in every bedroom and each room graced with true decoupage waste paper baskets (so that even disposing of the days useless papers was a small joy).

And of course, there was Small Joys itself: A store in my hometown which gratefully remains just off the village green: A tiny Faberge showcase full of rooms where one can purchase all manner of old and new world graciousness for the home.

It could also have been the influence of a Husband who taught to value things and care for them. He treats nothing as a throw away, always buys the best, and sees to it that what he has is carefully looked after and maintained. Possibly still, it is the fact that by virtue of his profession, many aspects of our lives are managed with military precision; a concept I find comforting, reliable, and thorough.

However it happened, gratefully orderliness took finally. When guests come into my home they are met with a clean, not overly decorated home which stays in order: The house is vacuumed every other day. There is a list of staples which is checked weekly and restocked. There is a landscaper who is not afraid of an exacting client because he is perhaps the only one more exacting. There are decorative items here and there but there is no kistch because I do not relish dusting, admittedly. Our downfall is overflowing bookcases (something from which I have never been able to break myself of, as the printed word is precious to me). I avoid clutter because I cannot stand to feel crowded and ruled by things. Long ago, mess was outlawed because it is not suitable for the home of respectable professionals who would stand or fall upon their judgement and ability to manage a task: Including the task of managing their home.

It was in these stations of beauty, refinement, orderliness, respect, and organization that I was educated regarding a home. In the life that has followed, I have come to know all manner of house and home and the initial shocks were the worst: Pulling up to a cocktail party at a stately old home only to find it decorated in some inexpensive and poorly done Rocco-esque knock off and just filthy in obvious ways: Thick coats of dust covering every surface and guest bathroom sinks with crusted toothpaste in the sink basin. Dirty white hand towels.

This sort of thing was a surprise because at home in Bedford these carefully-ordered, obsessively clean, and beautifully appointed homes were the norm, not the exception (whether the homes were grand or modest). There was a great deal of pride. The other side of the proverbial coin in the world beyond our little piece of housekeeping heaven and the places where we vacationed (which were like-minded, for the most part) were in many cases so very far from whence I came that the reality of how sheltered our world was began to become embarrassingly clear: There are people who do not respect themselves, the possessions for which they have worked, or their guests enough to pick up a vacuum, let alone a mop. But I knew nothing of this until much later. I did not think it was a choice: This cleaning thing was chore I had to do once I was out on my own. And so I did. But I did not like it, not a bit.

Eventually, I unwillingly became aware of every level of housekeeping through one job I held which exposed me to every sort of home and every walk of life. In that capacity I noticed that a house can be poorly kept for a multitude of reasons, some unavoidable like sickness or advanced age. But others had no excuse for the piles of junk inside their homes, for weedy unkempt property, and for the piles of trash all around their homes. Sometimes, this method of home-keeping survived generations of occupants in the same home. It causes me wonderment still whenever I come across a place of this sort: Why on earth would one not look after things to the best of their ability?

To add to my bewilderment, occasionally someone will complain that upkeep is too costly in time or money. In truth, cleaning supplies can be had for less than five dollars: Bleach, vinegar, water, and a sponge if you can have no more. This work is good for body and mind and it is below no one. It is also difficult to instruct another person on how to clean your home properly if you have never done so yourself top to bottom. It never fails to amaze me when someone who knows better tries to explain away a failure to keep a neat area or home. I find it difficult not to hear a sense of entitlement ringing through their words. I have often wondered whether: I just don't have the time to clean actually translates to: I work hard at work, why should I have to work at home?

What little I know to be absolutely true in life is this: Nothing, nothing comes without back-breaking hard work. The truth of every magnificently grand home you will ever see is that someone worked their bloodied fingers to the bone to attain it and others are working equally as hard to manage it and maintain it. You will never find a beautiful home that is not overseen by an exacting and dedicated homeowner or an even-more hard to please household manager. These are people (like you and I), who have worked brutally hard for what they have, at every level of wealth, and care for their things with the same zeal they put into earning those things in the first place. And even those who inherit are not fools: Generations do not become inheritor's by throwing away fortunes in real estate or any other thing of value.

The reality of cleaning and upkeep is that there is a very small group that can afford domestic and outdoor help of every kind. The rest of us have to grab a broom, some nails, sand paper, and paint occasionally, or even pick up a needle and thread. That is the reality of life, of things, of stuff. I am constantly amazed when people complain of too much to do to clean or whathaveyou and no money to pay someone as an excuse to let something of value like their home fall into an unsanitary or dis-repaired condition. As if obligations outside their home should prevent them from caring for their home. As if the phrases: "I am just too beat.", or "I need some relaxation.", are excuses or worse, explanations. Oh, no, no, Darlings. Life is excruciatingly hard work. Success in life is even harder: Morning, noon, and night it is exhausting to get things right. But, it is so rewarding.

What your home says about you to the world can make all the difference so you must work at it, like it or not: Imagine explaining to a boss dropping you home one night after a business trip why you have allowed the yard to be so grossly overgrown. Or perhaps, explaining to your parents that you were just to busy to clean before their visit. Or finally, facing the real estate agent who will explain in no certain terms just what the financial result of letting things go will mean to you in terms of loss of value in your real estate investment.

The way you care for and appreciate what you have is taken into account in every area of your life: I once had an assistant who was very good at what she did with one notable exception which proved to be her great undoing: Her desk was a disorganized and wild mess. As her responsibilities increased it was increasingly harder for her to keep track of her projects (regardless of how many times methods of organization were suggested and she was counseled). Her area presented additional issues as we were in plain view of visitors and buyers and because we were firstly a high end fashion company: Aesthetics was our entire business. We could no more afford to present an unsightly crazed area of wild disorganization than we would dream of knocking off TJ Maxx. There was no choice but to deal with the offending area, when it became clear there was no intention of getting the situation cleaned up for either professional or aesthetic purposes, that assistants message to me was clear: She did not care enough about her job to remedy her problem. For the sake of keeping our merchandising information organized and our first impression stellar, we did not continue to work together. She never could understand the stakes.

The stakes of caring for things is key to success in keeping a home, in one's profession, and in every human endeavor: Everything you have worked for and been gifted with is precious and worth looking after.


Sarah Ann said...

I completely agree. I grew up in a home much like what you describe, though probably not quite as strict. Now that I have a house of my own to take care of, I find it so infuriating when I find problems with the house. You see, we are renters (also military) and the homes for rent here are not always the best taken care of. I don't understand why the owner does not take better care of his property. In the long run, maintenance of your home lengthens its life.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

I grew up in a military family, and my mother actually white-glove-tested the house at the end of cleaning day, running a finger over the tops of doors and such. (Oh, dear, I failed that test several times before I caught on.) And don't even let me tell you what would happen if she inspected my chest of drawers and discovered even a single unballed sock. (Ok, I'll tell you: She would dump the contents of every drawer on the floor to greet me when I returned from school. I know, a bit Joan Crawford, no?) But one thing my military-wife mother's Harriet Craig personality taught me is that a clean house truly is a wonderful thing. Order helps you think; tidiness makes one feel all is right with the world. One also learns many things in attending to a house: how to properly polish wood, silver, and other materials, et cetera. All good things to know.

duchess said...

Great post, please excuse me now as I must go clean & organize a little.

LindsB said...

Thats funny that your husband buys the best and takes care of it. I grew up with the exact same reasoning by my father. My entire life I was told to buy the best and take care of it, if I take care of nice things I never have to buy it again. My Dad would be very happy to read that there are others out there like him.

My boyfriend things I’m crazy because I insist on keeping a neat house- there is nothing more I hate then having people over with a messy house. He is starting to get the hang of it how I like things though. We were having people over the other day and I had to work late so he was in charge of picking up and making sure the bathroom was clean. I was beyond surprised when I came home that everything was super neat and he even lit and pretty candle- I was so impressed. I must be training him right :)

Cori said...

Oh...I really enjoyed reading this opst tonight. Your words and truth really speak to me. I was fortunate to grow up in the home of a woman (my Mom) who kept about the most orerly an clean house I haver ever know. She is now 70 (but could pass for 55)...she continues to care for her house as it it were a loved one. She inspires me each ay. She finds pleasure in her cleanliness and organization. Although I have 2 messy children (who doesn't?) I still strive for an orderly and cllean home. It matters to me and I will devote tomorrow to getting it in order before I start my crafting : )...Love you blog

diana said...

I concur! I think I came out of the womb this way... my room was always neat and tidy as a kid and I LOVED it that way. My parents were both very orderly and took immaculate care of everything, including us.
I am curious to see how my own children will be as they venture off into their own homes. As teens... not looking too good! Great post

Reggie said...

Completely agree. I, by choice, live in a tidy and clean house on a cared for property, and I do what it takes to make sure that ours is well-ordered, well-taken care of, and well-stocked. Yes its work, at times back-breaking, sometimes tedious, and yes it takes steady and regular maintenance and investment. And sometimes something catacylismic will happen, like a storm taking down 6 mature trees in one fell swoop, which just happened to us last month and certainly wasn't in our budget to clean up at this time. But we dipped into savings to pay for the crew that spent 3 days cleaning up the mess. End of day I take great pleasure in knowing that I am caring for something worth investing time, effort, and capital in, and then passing it on to future generations, well-cared for. I simply do not understand living otherwise, on whatever scale (a small, clean and tidy house is a pleasure to behold) and believe that a messy and unkempt house and property etc. whatever the size or purchase price indicates the owner is either incapable of caring for it (and shouldn't be responsible for doing so), or simply doesn't care, in other words lazy. The former is understandable in some cases, but the latter is, to my mind, selfish and thoughtless and indicative of someone who is not in control of what they should be able to control -- their immediate surroundings. If you can't afford to keep up your house or apartment or are unwilling to do so, then scale back and move elswhere to a place that you can keep up or where others are responsible for doing so. An unkempt house and property is not a good place to raise well-behaved children, less than appealling to visit, and an unwelcome addition to any neighbhorhood. Last thing: nothing drives me crazier than the prospect of getting into a filthy, dirty car full of junk and empty fast food containers. Take care of it!

The Blushing Hostess said...

Sarah, good point, and the sheer fact of being able to have them home attractive enough to be rented and occupied is far better for the place than vacancy. One big circle really.

AAL - I once had a friend who regularly missed the bus because his sock drawer was unsatisfactory to him, I wonder if he know your Mother... in any event, the mention of knowing how to care for good things is so important. Every day, I note people scraping to lovely things which are in sad disrepair in no time, I had never considered they may have no idea how to care for them... and the ability to think thought is my feeling exactly. Well done.

LEB - he is figuring out both that it is important and that what is important to you is in turn important to him - perhaps the best sign of all.

Cori and Diana - I was one of those children, I promise, all it takes is time.

Reggie - that note on note being in control of our surroundings and therefore, your life, is one I had not considered before but I have a neighbor in Florida who lives is a big, beautiful home which she is allowing to sink into itself. It is a GF pit. And even as you note, she seems like a person completely out of control of her entire circumstance - even in conversation.