The I Hate to Housekeep Book opens with Peg Bracken’s concise layout of Who We Are, we hausfrauen, personality types that are infinitely clearer and probably have more scientific validity than the Myers-Briggs tests everyone takes online when they’re bored.
“There are three kinds of housekeepers,” she writes at the start of Chapter 1. “There is the spotless housekeeper, who won’t stop, and there is the spotful housekeeper, who won’t start. Then there is the occasional or random housekeeper, whose book this is.”
(An amusing aside: when I was typing out the above, WordPress autocorrected “spotful” to “spiteful,” which is damned accurate, for an autocorrect.)
I have friends who think I am the first type, but they don’t know the truth. I am definitely the third type, the occasional or random housekeeper. How do I know this? Because our bathrooms can get quite grungy looking before I’ll think, “gee, I should probably do something about that.” Because I know for a fact that I haven’t dusted the bookcases in the guest room since we moved here, which was in 2011. (I’m writing this on September 3, 2015.) The spotless housekeeper has these things under control because she keeps a weekly schedule from which she will not deviate, ever. Bracken sketches a sample schedule on page 4, and it’s definitely on the grim side. Bracken pokes fun at the spotless housekeeper’s tendency to clean the kitchen while she cooks (something I do — because I have to, my kitchen being a rather finite space). And, I admit, I am someone who will say, “Monday is Laundry Day,” in earnest, because otherwise the laundry will pile up to a scary degree and we’ll all run out of clean undies. But even I totally see that the Spotless Housekeeper has to be, at some level, insane.
The piece of advice I grabbed onto immediately upon reading this book for the first time in the 1990s was this — No. 5 : “Act immediately upon whatever housewifely impulses come your way.” It is this sort of thing that explains why I only ever wash the kitchen floor at nine o’clock at night, when I ought to be lying on the couch watching TV or thumbing through the pile of magazines that have piled up over the last six weeks (thus creating even more clutter than we might have to begin with). The fact is, it’s while I’m washing the dinner dishes that I tend to become most disgusted with the state of the kitchen floor. We have a wooden floor which we paid good money to have installed a couple of years ago. I do not enjoy it when it feels sticky underfoot. The good news is that because we have a small, one-wall, galley-type kitchen, the span of actual kitchen floor is quite minimal. So it takes me about ten minutes to wash it, rinse it, and dry it. But trust me, I never do this at a normal time of day, like when the kid is at school and the husband’s at work. No, I do it at night, when the light is poor and I probably miss a ton of schmutz because I can’t see properly anyhow.
But the important thing is that I take advantage of the housewifely impulse when I have it. Some cleaning is preferable to none, which is what we’d have otherwise. Bracken advises us that the cliche “anything worth doing is worth doing well” is not true — I disagree a little, she’s probably right. What I really think is, it’s a matter of taste and personal preference. There are some things that I think are worth doing properly, as often as possible, if only because the results make one’s life measurably more comfortable or safe. For example: it’s not necessary to make beds nicely every day. No one gets hurt because the bed is messy at bedtime. But we are a family who appreciate getting into nicely made beds at night. It’s comforting, it’s pleasant. So it’s worth it, to us, to have the beds made in the morning (after being aired out). That’s just us. Maybe you don’t care. Fine. But if you’re a guest at my house, spending the night, your bed will be nicely made, with sheets that smell and feel clean. The bookcases will be very dusty, because dust on bookshelves doesn’t happen to be one of my own bugaboos (and my husband seems to not believe in dust at all). But the bed will be comfortable and neat, with an extra blanket folded for you at down by your feet.
One idea that Bracken emphasizes in this chapter happens to be very trendy right now, which is that you do not, no matter what the marketing people tell you, need to own thirty-six specialized cleaners for the ten different types of surfaces in your house that need occasional cleaning. Peg Bracken was probably the person who first alerted me to the cleaning value of things like baking soda and vinegar — I remember keeping cans and jars of these things under my sink in the apartment I lived in in 1995. No Fantastik or Method Special Granite Cleaner for me (not that I ever had granite counters, but that’s beside the point). The items on the Bracken List were cheap, I knew, and I figured if it was good enough for Peg Bracken it was good enough for me. Reading the book again, I find it amusing that the Bracken lists seems so contemporary, so…. well, hip, even, as housecleaning supplies go. I remember that when I first read the book I was mystified by all these references to “sal soda.” What the hell was sal soda? I’d never seen it anywhere. Well, I know what it is, now: it’s sodium carbonate, and you can buy it in boxes in the laundry aisle of the supermarket, and it’s worth buying. I have even learned, thanks to Google, that if I don’t feel like using it to help scrub the bathtub or brighten the laundry, I can also use it to help me with my taxidermy projects — making me a very hip hausfrau indeed.
Bracken closes this chapter with a sage nugget: “never think unkindly about someone else’s housekeeping, nor speak unkindly either.” This is a real challenge sometimes, at least for me. (My mother is reading this and laughing. Hi, Mom.) But it’s true. And in this era of Sanctimommies, it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. She points out that you, we, the visitor to the friend’s house that we regard as crazypsychoneat or crazypsychoCollyerBrothers, don’t know what the friend is really dealing with on the home front. In other words, there can be good and valid explanations for behavior that may strike us as completely unacceptable in any given direction. So don’t criticize peoples’ dirty bathrooms or their manically clean bathrooms either.
Bracken opens her book gently and encouragingly. She is not lecturing us. She’s inviting us to sit down and put our feet up with this book for a while, saying, “ok, so, this might get a little ugly, but really, it doesn’t have to be as ugly as you fear.” And you can figure it all out while you’re sitting at the table drinking a nice iced coffee. Don’t worry about leaving a ring on the table. It’s fine. Not a big deal. We can deal with it later (probably much later).