I am glad my mother cannot see my house right now.
First there was COVID, so why would I bother with beeswax and Swifters when the only person showing up was the mail carrier? I like Travis and value his opinion, but he is far too busy to peer in the window and admire our gleaming hallway.
Then we had to move my mother-in-law to a(temporary we hope) nursing home, so bins of her belongings lined that dusty hallway, and racks of her clothes wobbled in the dining room, flanked by more storage tubs. Somehow our holiday decorations landed there too, bins being social creatures, and someday soon, we will sort out the jumble. But for once, I am taking my sweet time.
That is not entirely true. My husband is taking his sweet time, and I am fretting at the edges, shoving and lifting the heavy bins into tighter configurations, because I was raised by my mother. Her obsession was cleanliness, which bores me; I focus on tidiness, everything in its proper place, and soothing colors and textures, and an atmosphere that invites someone inside.
Indeed, there have been times (Andrew will tell you, so I might as well get there first) that I worried more about prospective guests than our own comfort. I chose chairs for their beauty and forgot they should be comfortable. I paid extra for the ottoman to be covered in the perfect upholstery fabric then winced every time the dog leaped up with muddy paws or my husband stretched out legs that ended in shoes, their tread caulked with the pungent goo of the outside world.
“Some women marry houses,” wrote the poet Anne Sexton. “It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,/a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.” That last phrase alone should have cured me. But a house does feel like a living creature, in need of regular baths and care. Soon it turns into one of those Japanese games where you become besotted by some creature you must feed or it will die.
The wise Athenians felt none of this neuroticism. They focused on their public buildings, making them far grander and lovelier than their simple homes. Their pride was collective. I was raised house-proud, that terrible phrase for a woman with skewed priorities. Why did I think we had to do more inside these four walls than comfort and strengthen one another? What gave me the idea we were landed gentry presiding over a crumbling estate with visitors due any day?
I blame that old notion of the private sphere as the woman’s purview, her responsibility. How one’s house looked was a reflection of her virtue (or lack thereof). It was also her only sphere of power. “Stay off my clean floor!” my mom would warn, taking possession by scrubbing away everyone else’s tracks. Is a Roomba, I wonder, sufficient sweat equity?
The equation of domesticity and virtue is no longer conscious, and I doubt any woman aspires to it. But what else would explain the flurry of apologies that greets friends who drop in on the spur of the moment? No one’s house is ever clean enough. When have you ever heard a woman say, “Oh, I am so happy you came today. The house is at its shining best!”?
The thought is so ludicrous, it stops me cold. I distract myself back to work by looking up the definition of house-proud (preoccupied and obsessed, just as I thought), then notice clickbait at the bottom of the page, and yes, I would like to see Kamala Harris’s house, but first it seems I must wend my way through fifty other celebrities. (Sidney Poitier has a truly cool living room, and I love Hillary Clinton’s pool, but whoever Brad Pitt is with these days needs to do something about that busy bathroom tile.)
With no chance of guests, a pandemic ought to be the perfect time for replacing bathroom tile—or for us to organize mother-in-law storage, clean our rugs, wash the windows, pick any of a dozen chores. Instead, after weeks of deferred intentions, I relaxed into the fact that our house was now our sanctuary—and nothing more. It was here for us and could look any way we needed it to look.
Why had I wasted so much breath nagging my husband about home improvements? There was a Platonic ideal in my head, our home as a glowing symbol of not just my wifely virtue but our happy life together. So I should drive him crazy with honey-do’s that filled our shared life with mutual annoyance? My mind flashed back to my twenties, and I remembered how carefree I felt when I was single and rented an apartment. (I once called maintenance because a light bulb had burned out, a recessed overhead one. And they smiled and replaced it, because I was young and clueless.)
Clearly, my husband had never expected me to become harried and compulsive simply because we owned a house. Renovations are his idea of hell. Mention a particular room, a paint color, a piece of furniture, and his mouth sets with a grim, martyred resignation; pull out a book of swatches, and you will see the eyes of a hunted animal.
I thought about how different it would feel if we were renting instead of owning. I would look for a big old farmhouse that was a little shabby around the edges—just like ours. And I would find it charming if the owners left it a little ramshackle, a little cluttered. If their stuff was jumbled in the basement, and if there were times when bins were piled in an unused room, the pocket doors slid shut to hide them. It would make the house feel lived-in, and warm, and accommodating.
The real definition of hospitality.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.