This story is by Susan Liddle and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thunk went the phone. Less than six days to declutter and clean the entire house. To prove to my mother that I was a grown-up providing a tidy, healthy home for Frank and our kids.
My breathing became shallower, faster. How could I possibly meet her standards before she arrived? With Frank away? Panic tingled in my arms.
No, damn it! No panic attacks. Standing up, I took a deep breath. Abruptly I started tossing stuffed animals, trucks, cardboard books and plastic dinosaurs into the plastic bins lined up along one wall. I’d get a shovel for the Lego later.
I picked up the cushions and tossed them onto the couch, folded the blankets and put them back too.
That helped. The room looked better already — and I felt more like myself. I just needed a plan. Time to make a list!
A full page later, I felt better. I can do this.
That afternoon, the kids and I made stew and did laundry. So slowly. I tried not to dwell on how much laundry I could have put away in the time it took a three-year-old to sort facecloths by colour.
That night on the phone, Frank was sympathetic: “Don’t go crazy. It’s our house, our mess. We don’t answer to anyone but each other.”
Easy for him to say, from his clean and uncluttered hotel room. I still flushed every time I remembered Mom telling me about Messies Anonymous.
Stories and hugs done, I put on housework music and tackled the front hall: I swept, mopped, stacked and stowed; banished sweaters and toy cars; rescued the missing stuffed bunny from Frank’s winter boot. By ten, all tidy and clean.
I showered, did my teeth and fell into bed. I was doing this. Mom would find no fault when she arrived on Saturday.
Monday night after work, over slightly scorched stew that I heated up too fast, Sarah told me she had to talk in front of the whole Grade 1 class the next day, then burst into tears.
A cuddle helped. We practised over and over, and by the end of bathtime, she could say and spell my full name and Frank’s, and our address (including the postal code), off by heart. She could describe her favourite food, toy and game. And after twenty careful minutes, she had just the right stuffy and book to bring to school.
Stories done, I threw the dishes in the dishwasher and left the stew pot soaking. It was late, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I brushed my teeth and went to bed, trying not to consider the evening lost. Tomorrow I would be more strategic. It would be fine.
The next day, I almost called in sick, but instead arranged to take Wednesday off. My spirits lifted. I could get a lot done in a day.
After Tuesday’s bedtime ritual, I stacked the dishes and headed for the living room. Go! Corral the dust bunnies, dust the knickknacks, wipe down the picture frames, scoop up the flyers, shake out the pillows, put the hair elastics in my pocket, crumpled Kleenexes in my other pocket, add the crayons to one of the pockets, gather the mail, sweep, mop, pause. Look around, paying no attention to the dusty curtains.
Looking good! I placed a small glass of wine on the shiny coffee table, crossed two more things off my list, and folded a load of laundry as I sipped. I’d get a good sleep tonight and get started as soon as I dropped the kids off. I picked up the remote control to wipe some dust off it, and my finger hovered over the power button. I had made good progress . . . but not enough for that. Get thee behind me, Netflix!
A small voice woke me around one o’clock: “Mummy, I don’t feel good.”
First Sarah, then Jonah. Vomit, rinse, repeat. Five hours checking temps, fetching and rinsing bowls and cloths, getting them to rinse and spit, rinse and spit. I washed my hands fanatically. When they finally slept, I shut the door on the barf zone and crawled into my bed between them.
A couple of hours later they were wide awake — and demanding breakfast.
After bananas and apples slices and crackers, we cuddled on the couch with books and blankets. I put Thomas the Tank Engine on and napped surreptitiously. I texted “We miss you” and a picture of the two kids in the couch nest to Frank.
Every now and then I ferried laundry, and a mountain of clean bedding rose up in the big armchair. When Jonah pulled it down onto the floor and rolled in it, giggling, and Sarah started burrowing into it, all I could think was that now I had the couch and blankets to myself.
Supper was chicken noodle soup and crackers. I made the beds, read the shortest story I could find (Good Night Gorilla), and tucked them in. At the fridge, I stared bleary-eyed at my list for a full minute, then turned and went to bed.
Thursday at lunchtime, I started dropping items from my list. Organize linen closet? Forget it. Clean fridge? Clean oven? Nope.
I ordered pizza that night and cleaned the bathroom while we waited for it. A clatter had me running to the living room doorway, and the telltale sound of hands pawing through Lego had me yelling, “Put that away right now!” I tamped down the slight hysteria and helped scoop up the Lego, explaining that I needed their help to get the house tidy for Grandma’s visit.
I tried to tuck in and get away without a story, but they only laughed excitedly at my trick.
Shame washed over me. What chore could possibly be more important than this? I lay down between their beds reading Fox in Sox mostly from memory, refusing to count how many hours were left. I woke at midnight with the book on my chest, stumbled to bed, and crawled under the covers in my clothes.
Friday morning, I stacked yesterday’s dishes, poured coffee, and went to investigate the happy noises coming from the living room.
Every inch of the coffee table was covered with Barbie dolls, clothes, and furniture. “Neigh!” Sarah galloped two pink ponies across the cluttered table. I opened my mouth, shut it. How did they trash the place so quietly? Jonah stood in a toy bin with dinosaurs lined up in front of it. I sat down at the table and took a long, slow sip of coffee. Then I ripped my list into tiny pieces.
All day clichés plagued me: A place for everything and everything in its place. A tidy home is a happy home.
That night, I stood at the counter cutting up carrots for supper and realized two things: I was about to succumb to the flu, and neither I nor the house would be in any shape to welcome my mother the next day.
Dear Annie, best friend ever, came over and settled me upstairs with a bowl. She fed the kids, read to them, bathed them and put them to bed, and left once she knew I could keep water down.
I opened my window a crack and wondered how long it would take for the smell of vomit to dissipate.
This is what my plan had shrunk to: stopping the house from stinking.
I cried, sick and tired of feeling a failure as an adult and a parent. I imagined ridiculous stories of Mom — no, Children’s Aid! — taking the kids away because of my messy house.
Saturday morning question: What’s the worst that could happen? Answer: Mom will still think I’m a messy housekeeper. So what! After this week, I was suddenly done with worrying about anyone else’s opinion.
“Sarah and Jonah, Mummy needs your help. One point for each toy one in a box. Let’s see who gets more points!”
A new plan formed as we tossed toys across the living room, and it had nothing to do with a list.
“Gamma! Gamma!” yelled the kids at the airport. We hugged, and tears pricked my eyes. I really was glad to see her.
In the car, Sarah babbled about throwing up and living on the couch all day, Mummy cleaning, yelling, and getting sick.
There it all was, right out in the open. Kind of a relief. This was me, and my life.
Mom glanced over at me and smiled. “You’ve had quite a week,” she said.
I found myself grinning as we passed the B & B. I slowed down and pointed out the window.
“Oh, Mom, it has been a week from hell, and the house isn’t fit for anyone to stay over. I got you a room at the B & B for four nights. Let’s go home and have a cup of tea. I want to know how you’re doing.”