“If one person in this house put one thing away where it belongs just once, I’d be thrilled!”

There are certain moments in life that stick in your brain for no logical reason. I thought I’d write about one of my own today. I was a senior in high school. We were in the apartment of the year (as we had a different one every year for 3 years in a row), with the same mess that we always packed away, then released from the boxes upon arrival to instantly fill the new place. I was laying on my bed in the bedroom reading a book for English class. And my mother was very loudly looking for the can opener in the kitchen outside my room.

That’s when she shouted the above sentence. And I glared over my book and muttered, “You wouldn’t even notice.”

I would never say something like that within her hearing. My self-appointed tasks in life were to keep my mother from crying and defend my father as not being able to do anything because of his disabilities (even though he could have done a lot more than he did).

But from the safety of my room, I could at least mutter my thoughts. Because honestly, let’s be realistic here. We had access to half the living room in that apartment, the other half being entirely piled up with boxes of stuff that we “needed” to keep. Of course, we survived a year and a half in that apartment–it being the last in our string of moves before moving to the house my parents lived in from a few days before I left for college, until just a few months ago–without any of the stuff in those boxes. But we couldn’t get rid of any of it either. We “needed” all of it.

What’s more, we still had piles and piles of junk EVERYWHERE, and several drawers and fixtures that functioned when we moved in were broken when we moved out. We kids were blamed for this, and I admit we could have done more than we did. You can refer back to my last post, though, about the importance of being taught how to clean. I mean, my siblings and I used to try to make our own chore charts, entirely of our own accord, so we could keep the house clean. We would go on frantic cleaning sprees. They resulted in failure after failure, never sure how to keep up with things, never sure how to stay motivated, never kept accountable or sure how to keep one another accountable, and often yelled at for throwing things out like, say, a meat tray (“Those can be used for paint pallets!”) or a moldy, cat-pee-soaked t-shirt (“We can wash that!” [if we ever got around to getting any laundry washed]). So yes, I admit that there was often more that we children could have done, but please realize that we were kind of flying blind through a very hostile environment when it came to cleaning.

I’m sorry if the last paragraph sounds very defensive, but these are things people have indicated, implied, or directly stated to me somewhat regularly–that maybe the mess really was our fault and we can’t blame it all on our parents. It’s so hard for me to differentiate what WAS my own fault or the fault of my siblings, and what was my parents’ fault, but it’s even harder for someone who wasn’t even in the situation to really be able to accurately identify this. Especially if they came from a home where they were taught how to clean, or a lot (maybe more than they ever realized) was done by their parents.

Anyway. So back to being realistic about my mother’s statement. In the midst of this huge mess, if one person put one thing away where it belonged once . . . who would notice? Honestly, who would? I was actually really upset by her shouted hyperbole simply because I had actually used the can opener earlier that day and I HAD put it back in the drawer where it belonged. Why it wasn’t there then–who had used it and not put it back, or if it was in the drawer and she just wasn’t seeing it–I don’t know. But really, did she honestly think she would be able to tell the difference if one item was put back where it belonged once? She didn’t even know the difference when we spent hours cleaning while they were out to try to surprise them when they got back. Who could tell?

Picture a beach after a hurricane. Picture debris everywhere. All up and down the beach. Now picture 3, 4, maybe 5 children walking up and down the beach for an afternoon, cleaning up as much debris as they can, with no instructions except “clean the beach,” and no idea what half the debris is. Trying to figure out what to do with it. Not even able to lift some things. Just for one afternoon. Honestly, if no one saw them out there, anyone coming along afterward might not be able to tell that anything was done at all.

Generally, you can get a lot done in an afternoon. Several rooms cleaned up. Lots of clothes sorted through. Under the right guidance and instruction. But without that–without guidance, without instruction, without knowing how to do it–you’ll just wander aimlessly and even if you do a lot, you’ll get very little actually accomplished. Not nearly as much as if you’re taught how to be efficient. Especially if you’re a child. So children wandering on a beach full of debris might get some done, more than if they did nothing at all, but not nearly as much as if an adult helps them get organized, teaches them how to do some things, works with them, and gives them specific instructions.

That mental image of adults and children working together to clean debris up from a beach after a hurricane is kind of nice. A “hope for humanity” kind of image. But now picture that, instead of helping them get organized, an adult out there sitting in a chair, yelling at them that they need to get things picked up, blaming them for the mess on the beach (and hey, maybe some of it is their own mess, who knows? but certainly not all of it), and then yelling at them for throwing some things away because “that can be fixed and I can still use that!” while also yelling at them for not throwing other things away that “obviously” are trash.

Yeah. That’s what cleaning in my house was like. Now, in my house, that adult yelling at us for not cleaning was my father. Most of the time. My mother did too, but not nearly as often. She wasn’t home often, busy working and driving people places. My father was home all the time, and my biggest memories of him (except a few precious memories of wonderfully deep conversations about science or philosophy or the Bible or music or whatever else; and a few weird memories when his inability to do anything was suddenly set aside when he wanted to create various artworks or cook way more food than needed to be cooked at once) are predominantly of him yelling at us for not cleaning, getting upset about things not being clean and throwing things around (which just relocated the mess rather than actually doing anything useful), watching TV, or being in his bedroom asleep while we had to try to stay as quiet as possible.

And no, I don’t blame my father for all those things. I understand some of them. He was frustrated at his disabilities, felt useless or like he wasn’t “good enough” because he couldn’t work to provide for his family. His already-night-owl sleep schedule was extra messed up with various medications he was on. I get that. But that doesn’t absolve him, either.

I’m babbling, though. Covering too many topics. My point is, in a place like that, who would ever notice something being put away where it belonged?

It’s one of those stupid little things–just one sentence shouted in frustration–that for some reason has stuck with me my whole life. As I’ve gotten older and learned how to clean on my own, I’ve learned something very important that, in all honesty, I really knew at the time but wasn’t sure how to do: it definitely takes a lot more than just doing one thing every day in order to keep a house clean.