by Nelia Odom
When I was between the ages of eight and twelve, my favorite possession was a doll house my father had made for me. It was furnished with a line of doll house furniture which was marketed under the name “Petite Princess.” It was fancy furniture, at least to my mind at the time--a sort of French provincial suburban, with plenty of gilt and lots of satin and brocade upholstery. Each piece, no matter how small or incidental, was sold separately and every week a new item was advertised on TV with the urging that we girls “collect them all.” My father brought me back a piece each time he went out of town. As he traveled often and my doll house was small, it was soon lavishly furnished.
I loved to arrange and rearrange the furniture. I was fascinated by all of the miniature details and by the fact that it was all so much more elegant than the yard sale and flea market stuff I was growing up with. I would decorate each room of the doll house to perfection, then sit back to admire it. That was the first time I kept house.
My mother was a good mother, but she didn’t really believe in keeping house. She had grown up in a family of New York bohemians who believed that a clean house was the sign of a wasted mind. Keeping house was viewed as an exercise in futility which, ultimately, it is.
I always thought it would be nice to live in a house that looked a little more like most of my friends’. It would be nice to have less dust and disarray, fewer messes and more order. It would be nice to know where things belonged and to be able to find them there when you needed them. There were rooms in our house where you literally could not see the floor. We had an entire bedroom--it was a big house, but still--given over to storing broken appliances, abandoned crafts projects, empty cardboard boxes, and mildewing books and magazines.
Not that this was all my mother’s doing. My father (he was a good father) was a true eccentric, a collector of antiques and curiosities, with a definite emphasis on the curiosities. He was drawn to the bizarre, the one-of-a-kind, and (his specialty) the completely useless. His finds graced every room of our house and added substantially to the challenge of keeping house, a challenge that no one ever accepted anyway. My brothers and I rarely were asked to do household chores. Keeping house would have disturbed that ambiance for which my parents were well-known (and admired) among their friends.
So I kept my doll house instead and when it finally dawned on me (at age twelve) that if I didn’t take charge no one else would, I began keeping my own bedroom fanatically tidy. And I indulged in a lot of “when I grow up” type thoughts.
When I grow up, I said, I won’t let this happen. I’ll stay on top of things. I won’t let the dirt, the dust, the dishes, the laundry, the ironing, the newspapers, the empty grocery bags, the junk mail, the toys, and the weeds out in the yard get the better of me! My furniture will match! I’ll have curtains! I’ll change the sheets!
I didn’t know it at the time, but my aspirations were radically out of sync with those of other women in the late 60s and early 70s. My ambition, when I grew up, was to keep house.
The first real place I kept house was in a three-room furnished apartment in Lexington, Kentucky in 1977. When my husband Steve and I moved there a week after our wedding, everything we owned fit into a Volkswagen bus. The place was fairly new and freshly painted. Steve worked all day and I worked about four hours a day. No problem. Keeping house was easy, as I knew it would be.
The second place I kept house was in a huge, wonderful 1920’s-style apartment in Atlanta. The rooms swallowed up the shabby furniture we had scrounged from our parents when we left Lexington. Despite the enormous rooms, there was no pantry, no kitchen cabinets, and at most, one teeny-tiny closet. In short, no place to put things. But Steve and I were both in school all day and we studied or tutored every evening. We weren’t there much, and keeping house was easy (as I knew it would be).
The best place I kept house came not too many years later in a tiny converted carriage house in Park Ridge, Illinois, outside of Chicago. It was charming. There was a raised brick fireplace with a hammered copper hood in the living room, dormer windows which looked out on a wide expanse of lawn in each of the three small bedrooms upstairs, sloping ceilings, and a fireplace in the largest bedroom with narrow windows at either side of the chimney. I loved it. It looked like some kind of storybook cottage to me, like the kind of place some Disney heroine would cheerfully sweep out each morning. It was just perfect for two people.
But not, as I was soon to find out, for four. Our daughter was born the second year we were there, and our son a year-and- a-half after that. Suddenly, stuff was everywhere. People were thrilled for us and showered us with gifts, or brought over every baby device they had ever owned to loan to us: a crib, a changing table, a playpen, a baby swing, a walker, a highchair, two strollers.
Keeping house was becoming more difficult and I had lost the time to do it right. Also the desire. I had an infant and a toddler who needed to be walked, played with, read to, and taken to the library and baby swim lessons. Little friends of theirs came over to play, laden with toys and graham crackers.
Grandparents came weighted down with surprises. I saved every toy and baby outfit too, no matter that it was broken or outgrown. It all still seemed too precious to throw away. And, for all we knew, we might need it again some day. After five years in storybook land, the walls started closing in. There was only one solution. We would have to move.
A wonderful solution! When we moved into our house in Washington, D.C., it was perfect. Steve painted the entire house before we moved in. I broke down and weeded out everything we didn’t need to keep--no more falling over unnecessary objects! I bought a new bedspread and new curtains for the bedroom. We brought Steve’s old bedroom furniture up from his parents’ house in Florida for our son, and a family at our church gave our daughter a Petite Princess style (gilt! brocade!) bedroom set. Everything upstairs matched! There was a place for everything! The closets were organized! I was keeping house once again. I had finally arrived.
I had also just begun homeschooling. Five years later, I’m going under. You never know what might come in handy when you’re homeschooling. You don’t even consider throwing away a book or a magazine, no matter how out of date. Somebody might pick it up and learn something from it some day. You don’t dare dispose of the first oatmeal container, egg carton, tin can, or plastic milk jug. These are valuable raw materials, just begging to be utilized as science experiments or rearranged as 3-D art projects. You save every last drawing, math paper, and handwriting practice sheet. You never know when you’ll have to prove to a third party that something vaguely academic has in fact been going on under your roof.
Excuses, excuses! I sound more and more like my mother every day. (She always did claim that she herself was personally very neat and organized and that it was all the stuff that came with the rest of us that was the problem.) Some days I survey the growing disorder and wonder if maybe I am wasting (not to mention losing) my mind. Clearly it’s time to reconsider the whole issue.
I used to think keeping house meant keeping things not just nice, but perfect, like my doll’s house. What I failed to notice as a child was that the doll inhabitants never did much to mess the place up. Keeping house for them was easy: they didn’t eat or read books or do art projects or change their clothes or play sports in the house. They didn’t have pets or hobbies. They didn’t go shopping and bring home numerous plastic bags. They didn’t get junk mail. They either sat all day in their chairs or lay all day in their beds. They weren’t a real family at all.
Things were different in my home. My parents may not have been into keeping house but they were definitely into raising kids. They thought art was great and gave us an unlimited supply of crayons, glue, paint, and paper. They thought literature was great and let us bring home stacks of books from the library every week. They thought travel was great and took us on crazy, haywire camping trips summer after summer. They thought games were great and sat up in the evenings to play Monopoly with us. They thought church was great and took us every Sunday, whether we wanted to go or not. They thought we were great, and told us so often.
I remember them now as I survey my own creeping chaos. My childhood yearning for order and system will probably always be with me. There’s no question that my temperament and that of my parents’ were out of sync on this issue. But after sixteen years of marriage, ten of parenthood, five of homeschooling, I understand what they were up against. They have both since died and their house is gone now, sold to the highest bidder. But I’ve finally reached a conclusion with which I think they would have agreed: Houses can’t be kept after all. Only memories.