Lessons I learned from a housekeeper

I did some calculations the other day.

If I am lucky enough to live another 10 years, by the time I am 50, I will have mopped my kitchen floor and cleaned the three bathrooms in my house roughly 600 times. I will have planned or prepared about 20,000 meals for my family and done roughly 6,000 loads of laundry.  

What some people don’t realize about laundry is that you might say that you “did a load” and it sounds like no big deal, but it is a four-step process in which you wash it, dry it, fold it, and put it away. So my 6,000 loads will actually account for 24,000 acts of mindless drudgery.

I am not sure why it would appear that females are better-suited to mindless drudgery than males, but when I have questioned women over 50 about how one is supposed to clean up after an entire family without suffocating from resentment, many say this:

Just hire a housekeeper.

I do understand why people don’t hire male housekeepers. It’s the same reason there aren’t a lot of male nannies – at least not where I am from. I’ve read the stories in magazines like Vogue about “mannies,” but they were obviously exceptions rather than the norm. We’re more likely to trust a woman we don’t know than a man, at least when it comes to housework.

Many years ago, when I lived here with my grandmother, she was a regular client for a married couple who worked as housekeepers for a few different people. For several years, this couple did everything for my grandmother, from cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash to laundry and grocery shopping. By the time my grandmother was in her 80s, the woman in the couple was sorting her medications and helping her bathe.

This couple was very methodical about housework, starting the laundry first thing before gathering the trash. But of course, none of that is very interesting. It is mindless drudgery. This couple would sing while they worked, and the man had a habit of making noises as he moved through the house. Sometimes it sounded like he was saying, “Hee haw!” My mother surmised that it might have been his way of letting us know he was coming so that I didn’t end up walking down the hall in nothing but a towel as he was making his rounds to the wastebaskets.

I didn’t consciously take note of many of their cleaning methods, although clearly I should have. I wish someone had told me how exactly how you are supposed to clean the tracks of a sliding glass shower door, where water pools with hair and mildew, creating a viscous and indescribably disgusting substance.

One thing I do remember about my grandmother’s housekeepers was that they made a lot of stacks. They (and when I say they, I am pretty sure it was the woman who did this) would take books, bills, pens, and newspapers scattered on a table and make neat little stacks and piles with all of it.

When my grandmother’s housekeepers left and I began to assume their duties, I got interested in the Chinese design philosophy of feng shui, which uses natural elements to help people create pleasant environments.

I think I liked the symbolism of feng shui most of all. I liked how, to increase prosperity, you could place an amethyst in the area of your home related to money. If you want helpful people in your life, and you want to travel frequently (don’t ask me why those two things are related), then you might not want the section of your home that is related to helpful people and travel cluttered with wires, DVDs, and dust, as it is in mine.

It is, to some extent, magical thinking, and you need that once you’ve outgrown the idea that the mice should be talking to you and helping you tidy up.

What I’ve learned from reading about Asian interior design philosophy boils down to this: Clutter is bad.

It’s not that I disagree …

If I were to write a book about cleaning and organizing, it would be titled All It Takes Is A Trash Bag.

It would be one of those “cut your losses” books about letting go of the past and giving up your emotional attachment to the piece of skin that your pet lizard shed so many years ago. I would say it’s OK to let go of that massive molar you keep in your jewelry box. You keep it because first you paid a dentist $1,300 to root canal and crown it, and then you paid another dentist to pull it out because the most expensive crown you ever wore felt perpetually wrong.
I do know that, in reality, cleaning up is more complicated than just taking out the trash. Sometimes it takes a dumpster, a landfill, and a week of assistance from several determined and able-bodied people.

So, when I write my book, first I’ll say that you should be absolutely ruthless in your war against clutter.

Then I’ll say that if that isn’t possible, you should put precious gems, crystals, and other symbols of goodness, which may or may not have power beyond their aesthetic value, in various areas for inspiration and hope.

If that doesn’t work, you could try developing a mantra or maybe just a weird noise that you make periodically as you clean to let people know you’re coming. It should be the sound that your spirit animal would make. That might even cause everyone else to get up and help while braying with their own determination.

And actually, don’t worry about throwing away every little useless thing. You can keep your molars and your crowns in a jewelry box. They did cost a lot of money, and they’re not taking up much space.

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