A Clutter Bug Conspires To Clean Up Her Act

The cleaning fairy does not live at our house. When my hus-band and I first got married, it took us a while to comprehend this. Clothes thrown on the floor just stayed there. Forever. Empty glasses with milk scum at the bottom didn't magically disappear from the nightstand.

Our mothers gleefully agreed we deserved each other.

In the beginning, this was not a problem. Equally oblivious to the crumbs on the counters, we were, it appeared, tailor-made for each other.

But one day all that changed. Our house was ransacked and - I'm not making this up - it took us an hour and a half to notice. I thought it was funny. But Mark? Well, from that day on he determined to mold me into the homemaker of his dreams.

Suddenly, he began notifying me of all elderly vegetables residing in refrigerator compartments. He'd spot errant pieces of junk mail scattered throughout the house. Not that he did anything about said items, mind you, he just wanted to make sure I knew they were there.

Unfortunately, being receptive to well-intentioned advice has never been one of my strong points. But, determined to place the role of loving wife and helpmeet at the top of my priorities - plus I didn't want to flunk the latest magazine marriage quiz - I knew the time was right for a change.

My well-thought-out plan for mending my ways (if not my mending pile) was based on rock-solid, scientific data: I would clean house the way they did on television commercials. The ladies on TV turned grease and grime into sparkly shine simply by donning their whitest pants outfit and beaming at a 10-gallon jug of pine cleaning solution.

That's it, I needed to buy some of those jugs!

I returned from the supermarket staggering under the weight of spray bottles. My husband, pleased with my progress, added a huge dust mop to my supplies. My cleaning problems, I was convinced, were over.

Two years later, when it was time to move into our next home, I boxed up the virgin mop and all those (still) brand-new cleaning supplies. The horrible truth hit me: In order for the cleaning supplies to work, someone had to actually use them.

This was momentarily discouraging. But I quickly moved to the next stage in my cleaning metamorphosis. If I could find the right book, surely then the cleaning fairy would flutter her wings and alight in my living room to live with us forevermore. I headed for the bookstore and brought home an armload.

The books always started with the author's Grand System: Make lists of chores that need to be done (4,123 by my count), time available for cleaning each day (3 minutes, 17 seconds), then buy a three-ring binder, color-coded index cards, and a peppy little apron.

Pardon me for not getting too excited.

What you do with the cards and the apron I don't know, because this is where I tossed the book and began looking for a more palatable guidebook, one that didn't suggest adding clammy yellow gloves to my everyday attire.

After I pored over several more manuals, including my personal favorite, which insisted messy people aren't lazy, but merely perfectionists gone awry, my husband spoke up.

"Instead of reading about vacuuming," he said, straining not to sound peevish, "why don't you just vacuum?"

I won't go into my immediate response (something about his hands fitting around the vacuum handle as well as mine). But I couldn't shake the feeling that he might be on to something.

The grand cleaning experiment began.

Toothpick in hand, I picked at the bolts that keep my toilet fastened to the floor. If anyone so much as breathed near the pristine bathroom fixtures, the Superior Homemaker cried, "My nice clean mirrors!"

When had they become "my" mirrors?" Who wanted a proprietary relationship with mirrors, anyway?

At 5 p.m. on an evening we were expecting dinner guests and I was scrubbing more furiously than usual, my young son asked, "Are you angry, Mommy?"

I sighed. "No, I'm not angry, honey. Mommy just hates to clean. It makes me crabby."

THE instant I said it, lights went on; bells rang. I didn't care about having a clean house. I'd been scrubbing and polishing and making myself miserable trying to live up to someone else's standards. It was time to tell my husband what my mother had known all along. I am not the cleaning fairy. And I never will be.

You'll never guess what happened next. Once I stopped trying to be what I'm not, I noticed that somehow, through no fault of my own, I'd become a good (OK, OK, passable) homemaker. Crumbs that once would have littered the counter until leap year now glared like a neon sign.

Seems there's no going back. And my husband, the one who instigated all this? I'm happy to report his hands fit around the handle of a vacuum cleaner just fine.

And you ought to see that man with a squeegee.

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