Big house blues

I remember, as a boy, hearing my mother's friends dish about an acquaintance's new, much bigger home. "It's a nice place," they said, "but I wouldn't want to clean it."

I now know what they meant. We moved to a bigger place a few months ago, and it's doubled my workload. Plus, I had to learn how to clean a house all over again.

All the routines change. Everything is in a new place. You spend so much time looking for, say, the mop that by the time you find it, you've forgotten where you spilled.

Some things are learned quickly. When is trash day? Where did we put the scissors? What's that noise?

Others take longer. It takes a few weeks to master the light switches, for example. How come, in a new place, all the light switches seem to be on the wrong walls? More than once, I've trekked to that one light that was left on at night, only to pitch myself into darkness. Then I'm stuck, trying to remember how to illuminate a path back to my bed. I end up fumbling for the light I just extinguished, then turning on seven more to backtrack. The electricity bill would be lower if I'd just left that one burning.

Learning to clean a house is the slowest lesson of all. The day is filled with inefficiencies. I carry clean laundry to the far end of the house and put it in a bedroom, only to return to the laundry room and find something else that belongs in that bedroom. I can walk miles every day without going outdoors.

I tend to wander when I clean anyway. I'll be working in the kitchen and see a toy that's been left on the counter and I'll take the toy to a kid's room and then notice the kid's room needs picking up and I'll do that until I run out of coffee. Then I'm back in the kitchen and I resume the dishes until something else distracts me and I'm off again.

This method results in most rooms in the house being almost-clean at any one time. Almost-clean's not so bad, actually. If the doorbell rings, a quick slamming of doors to shut off the worst of it can make a house look as tidy as Martha Stewart's.

The doorbell rings a lot after you move into a new place. All your friends and relatives want to come by and see it. Of course, they want to see behind all the closed doors, too. More than once, I've warned a visitor approaching my son's closet: "Don't open that! Avalanche!"

Everyone who visits knows I'm responsible for the housework in our family, so I'm embarrassed if they find damp towels on the floor or dust bunnies in the foyer. I walk ahead of my visitors, subtly kicking things under furniture.

No matter how much I vacuum, the floors always are covered with bits of dead yellow grass. Our fuzzy dog rolls around in the yard, then carries a bale of hay into the house. A quick shake and a roll on the carpet and the dead grass is deposited right where he wants it. I've never seen an animal with a coat so perfectly designed for things to stick in it. We should've named him Velcro.

I'm learning to ignore the thatched floor, but keep everything else more-or-less clean. I now plan my journeys from one end of the house to the other. And we've found new tools to help. We got a big square bucket for carrying all the cleaning products and implements from room to room and two laundry baskets for ferrying clothes back and forth to the washer.

I've discovered a new appreciation for labor-saving devices that had been shunned in the past. I now love the vacuum cleaner, for instance, and the sweet geometry of rearranging the dishwasher load to squeeze in that one last bowl.

The light switches still stymie me occasionally, but I've learned to find my way in the dark.

(Editor's note: This column originally appeared in 1999. We're in a smaller, almost-clean house now.)

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