Summer Slackers

I got into a little argument with my kids about cleaning the house.

I let things slide during the summer. About a week before my son arrives home from college in mid-May, I realize order will cease to exist, and I mostly go with the flow until he evacuates in late August.

But we reached a crisis point, mainly because we were expecting visitors: the cleaning people who hadn’t been here in two months. And though I warned that I’d need all hands on deck for this recovery mission, they argued bitterly with me about cleaning detail.

Having kids, or should I say young adults, argue with me about cleaning the house infuriates me because I grew up in a family where daily and weekly cleaning chores were expected. I was wielding a Lemon Pledge can by age 8, and prided myself at cleaning a broiler pan better than anyone else. (For stubborn grease, pour a little dishwasher soap in with hot water and soak for about 30 minutes.)

As a kid, I used to read “Hints from Heloise,” both the original column and the one later penned by her daughter. I knew the difference between Janitor-in-a-Drum, Pine Sol, Lysol, Spic & Span and Murphy’s Oil Soap by scent, and even today can spot Fabuloso by its distinctive aroma touted as lasting 24 hours. (I once got into an elaborate conversation with a Target cashier over the joys of Fabuloso, but that’s a blog for another day.)

One of Heloise’s helpful columns.

As the second oldest of seven girls, I was expected to pitch in with cleaning and even organize the little kids every Saturday. My father believed that the cook shouldn’t clean the kitchen, so he enlisted me and two of my sisters flanking me in birth order to clean the kitchen every night. We were 11, 10 and 8. When the little kids aged up, they assisted us.

My older sister handled dishes, while the younger one cleaned the table and counters. I was on pots, which sounds easy until you realize my mother used several pots and pans every night. “What’d she use every pot in the kitchen?” I’d often mutter under my breath. And I think she did.

Though some cooks clean as they go along, my mother paid little mind to the mess she was making because she had us to clean it up. I know because I’m the same way – you tend to be messier in the kitchen when you know you’re not the one cleaning up after yourself.

Besides nightly kitchen detail, we were expected to clean the house from top to bottom every Saturday morning. No one was particularly happy about it, but I don’t remember giving my mother an argument. We understood from an early age that keeping the house in order was the price you paid for having a roof over your head.

I was the cleaning organizer, and I relished my role. Each week, I’d write down the names of various rooms on slips of paper and put them into a hat. Everyone took turns picking out their assignments and then scattered to complete their missions. Some kids did better jobs than others, but no one balked. It was part of our routine, and we knew fun things like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” beckoned once the chores were finished.

In addition to chores, we grew up knowing we had to put our stuff away. If you left a jacket on a family room chair, my father would storm into the room and throw it on the floor, making his disdain for clutter quite clear without speaking a word. The jacket would be scooped up by the offender and hung in the closest, never making its way to the chair again.

I used to think our house was messy, and it was compared to my friends’ houses, which were always neat as a pin. I loved the sense of order and quiet that a house with only two kids afforded. By comparison, my house seemed loud, chaotic and a bit of a zoo.

But I’m now in awe of my mother and her ability to keep such a tidy house with seven kids under foot. She ran a much tighter ship than I thought, teaching us at an early age that it takes a village to keep a house in order.

Show me a house where only one person cleans, and I’ll show you a messy house. Keeping a space in order takes cooperation from all household members and a bit of a covenant – I’ll do my part if you do yours. If you have a stake in the cleaning process, you’re much less likely to mess things up.

What I’ve realized about my family, including me, is that no one puts anything away. Backpacks, shoes, piles of clean laundry and tennis racquets are strewn about, making me wonder what my father would do if he was still alive and set foot in this place. He’d probably start throwing things on the floor to make his point – and he’d have to if he hoped to find an open chair.

I spent three hours – no exaggeration – putting things away. Most people would be embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true. Three hours to remove things from where they didn’t belong and into their rightful spots.

I’m not sure how we all became such slobs, but I blame part of it on the summer slide. The last thing anyone wants to do in the summer is clean house, though I’ve been in enough immaculate houses lately to know that some people still clean in the summer. Going into a clean house is such a wake-up call for us summer slackers, reminding us how far we’ve fallen.

My mother taught me from an early age that cleaning is not a one-person job that should fall on the mother alone. I forgot that lesson when raising my own kids. I failed to make daily and Saturday chores part of the package, perhaps because I was too busy shuttling them to sports and playdates every weekend.

Instead of getting out Pledge and dust rags, we were in the car, crisscrossing town for soccer, basketball or baseball. There was no time for cleaning or scraps of paper in a hat, so I forgot that it’s OK to expect kids to do their part.

As my mother often says, “You must be home to clean your house” and we were never home on Saturdays. We’re still not home a lot, but I want my kids to know that cleaning is important. It’s doing your part, and showing respect for the place you call home.

If I can get that point across without an argument, I will have done my job and taught them that cleaning is a fact of life. Period.


Bear With Me

The bears are back in town.

I’ve been hiking in my wooded neighborhood since we moved here 16 years ago.

One of the best parts of Guilford, CT., is the beautiful trails winding along rivers and streams and through forests. People ask me all the time if I’m worried about getting Lyme disease in the woods. We live within spitting distance of Lyme, CT., where the first cases of the tick-borne disease were reported in the early ’70s.

The answer is no. I know plenty of people who’ve contracted Lyme disease in their backyards while doing yard work, or in urban areas where there are few deer. It’s a terrible disease – I have one friend who was undiagnosed for years and suffers with arthritis and is on antibiotics most of the year – but I refuse to live my life in a bubble.

I’m careful and take precautions, but I love hiking in the woods with my dog. We live in an area where you can let your dog off-lead, and my dog enjoys jumping into ponds, rivers, streams and puddles while I contemplate my navel or listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack for the umpteenth time.

Hiking in the woods releases your mind in a way that’s impossible on roads while avoiding oncoming hulks of metal. Some of my best ideas have bubbled up while hiking alone. And hiking with friends is a special kind of therapy, a chance to vent or listen and be assured that what’s said stays in the proverbial vault.

Most of the people I see on the trails are moms like me with their dogs. After the business of mothering is finished in the morning or afternoon, moms hit the trails to collect their thoughts or forget about life for awhile. In a world of schedules, mom taxis and meeting others’ needs, a trail hike is often the one spontaneous act a mom can carve out in her day.

There’s only one thing that scares me about hiking, and it’s black bears. Bear sightings off Interstate 95, in condominium complexes and in trees in nearby neighborhoods make me nervous because bears are scary, unpredictable and dangerous, particularly mother bears with cubs.

I refused to let my daughter run through the woods to cross country practice because of bears. And I haven’t set foot on a trail since bear sightings began showing up on the town’s Facebook page last week.

The whole thing became official when this sign was posted at my favorite hiking trail up the street:

Everyone is very sympathetic toward the bears and I get it: they’re animals and have every right to share the Earth with us. I’d just be very happy if our paths never crossed.

Some of my previous surprise encounters with wildlife haven’t gone so well. I’m one of the few people who’s experienced a squirrel jumping into and onto her head full-force, and I’m here to say it hurts (and requires a round of rabies shots).

The black bears behaved and went into hibernation over the winter, but they’re returning in force like campers in their Winnebagos at nearby state parks. Over the past few days, several people have reported bears around town, forcing me to reevaluate my hiking routine.

Do I hike in the woods armed with my copper bear bell and pepper spray knowing there are bears in our midst, or stick to roads and populated areas to be on the safe side? Do I dare go out alone, or drum up companions, which is often difficult with kids home for the summer and vacation traveling?

I’m trying to outsmart the bears, figuring out places that they’re least likely to be. But as I learned last fall when they descended upon us, I have no idea how bears think.

I abandoned hiking in the woods when some large bears were spotted in our area last November, opting for a four-mile loop through a nearby suburban neighborhood.

I was feeling very pleased with myself until a bear was spotted in someone’s yard in the very place I was walking. “Bear spotted on Bartlett Drive,” The Curmudgeon texted. “Keep dog in house. Tell (our 18-year-old daughter) to go outside.”

All joking aside, I panicked because the bear was exactly where I thought he’d never be. I thought he’d prefer the woods with an ample supply of trees, streams, berries and privacy, but I was wrong. He was smack in the middle of suburbia having his way with a bird feeder.

As Connecticut residents, we know black bears are in the state, particularly in the northeast corner. Despite this knowledge, we panic when bears are spotted because they’re still relatively new around here.

We know people in other areas of the country deal with bears, and we’re a little in awe of them. We don’t know how they peacefully co-exist or deal with the knowledge that there is always the chance of encountering a bear. We’re ignorant dealing with bears, operating on sheer instinct, our natural fight or flight response and state wildlife officials tip sheets.

This is the only Bear I want to see on a hike: My friend Christi’s Bernese mountain dog named Bear.

One of the more surprising tips is not to play dead if you encounter a bear, and to fight it off with any and all means possible, including throwing things at it. I’m not sure I could do that. During a recent knife- and axe-throwing event on vacation, I learned my throwing arm and aim aren’t great. And let’s face it, if you’re throwing objects at a bear, you don’t want to miss your target.

There are some people who bravely videotape or photograph bears that stroll into their yards or cross their paths along the highway, but have no interest in seeing one. Though wildlife officials tout seeing a bear in the wild as an extraordinary event, I’ll take their word for it.

I’ve been up close and personal with a squirrel, which is enough to scare me off any future wildlife encounters. I’ll be very happy going through life without seeing a bear, but I’m not sure it’s really up to me.

If a bear is going to cross my path, I’m pretty sure I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It could happen in my driveway or at the local Dairy Queen, where one was spotted last week. But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to avoid the woods for now.

I’m not happy about it, but it seems like the reasonable thing to do – at least for this week.

My Brush With Greatness

David McCullough
(Simon & Schuster photo)

I committed the ultimate faux pas.

A famous author walked toward me in the grocery aisle in Martha’s Vineyard last weekend, and instead of pretending I didn’t recognize him, I gushed and rambled on about his latest book.

This is so very uncool, particularly at the Vineyard where celebrities flock to get away from this sort of thing. They expect to be left alone, to go about their business with a certain degree of anonymity that can’t be found on the mainland.

I’ve seen them here – Micheal J. Fox and his wife Tracy Pollan in the ER at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (I didn’t recognize him at first, but his voice is unmistakable); Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen walking the beach at dawn; Chelsea Clinton; Tony Shalhoub eating with friends in Aquinnah, and Meg Ryan strolling the shops in Menemsha.

And most of the time, I behave. I pretend that I don’t know who they are and give them space. They know that I know, and I know that I know, but we pretend that we don’t. They’re celebrities, but they’re people too. And though they’re in the public eye, they deserve privacy when they’re on vacation and want to go out in public.

They shouldn’t have to worry about being harassed when running into the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon for a few food items. They should be able to dash in and get into the 12 items and under line without being hassled.

Good luck with that. Some people have no clue, approaching them for autographs, snapping photos and sharing anecdotes that they have no interest in hearing. I’m guilty as charged in the last category, rambling on to Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough when all he really wanted was a box of raisins.

I probably would have left “America’s Historian” alone had it not been for another fan who stopped him as he dashed into the canned food aisle. The man told him that he was a huge fan and shook McCullough’s hand.

As he approached me, I recognized him from his book jackets. He lives in West Tisbury, just a few doors away from a house where my in-laws lived, yet I’d never seen him in person before. I thought it was very coincidental that I had just picked up one of his books at the library as part of my job as a errand runner for a North Guilford, CT., monastery.

Two days after I picked up this book in a pubic library, I bumped into the author. I thought he needed to know, but all he wanted was raisins.

“I just picked up your latest book The Pioneers for one of the nuns at the monastery where I work,” I gushed.

He looked confused, even a little concerned. (“And why do I care?” he was probably thinking). Why was a stranger sharing this information with him, and how long would he have to suffer this fool?

He nodded. “Do you know where the raisins are?” he asked.

I shook my head and he was off in a flash. He’s 85 (he turns 86 on July 7th), but he can still move very fast. He was out the door with his raisins before I tracked down the Curmudgeon in the frozen food section and told him about my celebrity spotting.

I’m not sure why I broke my own rules about celebrities for McCullough, but I think it’s because I have tremendous respect and admiration for his work. He’s one of our country’s most famous and prolific writers and historians, and the best in his field.

He’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for Truman and John Adams) and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award.

I guess you could say I was swept away by his presence, so I acted in a way that’s quite out of character for me. I was face-to-face with greatness, which doesn’t happen every day, so I acted out of instinct instead of showing restraint.

I’m glad that I got it out of my system, and I promise to leave him alone if I ever see him again. But just in case, I’m going to find out where they keep the raisins so I can help him out next time.