Years ago I was living in a house with constant construction upheaval. The house was a “fixer-upper” and when we moved in I had little idea what that would mean. The tasks required to make the house stable and functional were endless. Clearing the mess and dust felt overwhelming so most cleaning was left undone. It was only when the marriage ended and construction ceased that I felt in my bones how hard it had been to live with constant upheaval.
The loss of emotional and financial stability pushed me to find new ways of being. Having been a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, I needed to learn to support my family financially. I turned to cleaning other’s homes and soon put to work in my own house the lessons I was learning. Removing dirt, dust, and grime became a way to care for myself and my family, creating a sense of order in a life unsettled by divorce.
Much has changed in my life in the ensuing years but the house and its failings remain a constant. A recently initiated, essential project is almost complete and will help keep our tiny cottage from sagging any more than it already does. The noise, shaking, and hammering are nearly finished.
With the end in sight I can see the layers of mess for what they are—signs of caring and hope–investments in caring for our family. I pulled out the feather duster and began clearing out the tufts of dust-covered cobwebs clinging to corners near the ceiling and stairway. My damp mop shifted bits of debris from the floor along with the grit that had been tracked inside during the messiest periods of the project. Our kittens found the damp mop to be a delightful diversion. Their attentiveness and sense of play “helped” me every step of the way.
I carefully removed pictures of grands from the front of the fridge so I could wipe sticky fingerprints off what had recently been shiny stainless steel. Once polished and dried, the grands and other assorted fridge decorations returned to their rightful places.
The bathroom came next. When my kids were young I cleaned multiple bathrooms (and the rest of each house) weekly to pay our bills. I often said only half-joking, “When you have cleaned ten bathrooms, what’s one more?”
Now living with a body altered by illness, this day one bathroom was enough. After it was cleaner (never totally clean—there is always more), I rested and reflected on a time when I was able to physically do much more. The work in years past, imposing order on disorder, was a source of sanity in trying times.
These days I find stability in a remade family. Necessary construction is undertaken in mostly small doses, and we make time for breaks, for changes of scenery.
As yet one more project nears completion, I try to see putting our house back in order as a way of expressing care. Caring for our family, caring for ourselves, and making peace with the state of our cottage as it is. Yes, after all these years, the house is still a work in progress. The tasks are never done, but a respite, a time to allow everything to hold still is in sight.
I once told a young girl that the act of dusting is actually a way of hugging your house. She looked skeptical but followed my lead and got to work with me. When I pass on so-called words of wisdom I am mostly reminding myself about lessons learned long ago in another life. And so I set out once more to hug our small, still-in-progress cottage that has protected me and my family from the cold for oh, these many years.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks, Finding the Sacred in Everyday (and some very strange) Places.
She has written for numerous local, regional, and national publications over the past 20+ years, has helped many families save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.