June Cleaver, from the television series Leave It to Beaver, doesn’t live here anymore, but many years ago I married a man whose mother could sure have given June a run for her money. In fact, back in the sixties, my mother-in-law, who raised three boys, was nominated for Suburban Homemaker of the Year of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her home was described as “a model of neatness and comfort.” No kidding. For years this has been scary, motivating, and intriguing to me. I wondered: How can I ever keep as nice a home? Gosh, I had better get my act together. And, most important, how did she do it? I finally got the courage to ask her and this is what I learned.
Laundry practices were first on my list of questions because my husband still speaks longingly of his childhood underwear drawer, always magically tidy and full. Did she do laundry all the time? Many people who attend my clutter control classes say they are constantly doing laundry. My mother-in-law said no. She did laundry on Mondays and Thursdays. She used bleach alternate times on her whites, so whites would stay white without getting holes in them. She put a fabric sheet in every dryer load so things wouldn’t have static and stick together.
How often were sheets and towels changed? (Do you ever wonder how often other people really do this?) My mother-in-law washed towels every time she did laundry, and sheets got changed once per week and washed on a laundry day. How about the rest of the bedding? The beds got stripped down, and everything on the beds got washed, and the mattresses were turned in the spring and in the fall. She demonstrated how to neatly fold a fitted sheet by tucking the corners into each other, smoothing the sheet flat, and then folding it neatly. Cool.
With three boys and a dog, she must have dusted and vacuumed constantly? No. She said she dusted and vacuumed once per week unless there was a specific mess that needed to be cleaned up. Did she move the furniture every time? No, she only moved it once in a while. Did she clean the baseboards and curtains every time? No. She did a thorough room-by-room cleaning once each spring and fall. What about windows? They got cleaned every six months, including the storms and the screens.
Did she empty closets out all the time? No. She would just cull out extra stuff in closets when she was in them. She didn’t empty out the closets at all. Most toys were kept in a central spot downstairs. I am guessing this helped keep the bedrooms tidier and easier to straighten.
Maybe the kitchen and bathroom were getting cleaned all the time? Did she spend all her time mopping? No. These rooms got scrubbed down once a week. As a little preventative maintenance, she did quickly swish out the tub each time. The toilet, tub, and the rest of the bathroom got cleaned weekly.
Did she have special cleaning products that did a better job than anyone else’s? No. She used a solution of one-part vinegar to three-parts water for cleaning glass mirrors and windows. She used an over-the-counter product in the kitchen, a spray product for soap scum, and a clinging product for the toilet bowls. She liked non-sudsing ammonia in water for general cleaning. After wiping down fixtures, this same water would be used to mop the bathroom and kitchen floors. It was a simple effective system, and it didn’t waste cleaning water either.
What was I learning? There were no astounding discoveries here, but I began to see a pattern. My mother-in-law had very thorough organizational habits. Also, almost every time I asked a cleaning question, her answer included “unless there was something more important going on that day.” Keeping a clean house was important, but it was clear that people and activities came first. She wasn’t one to waste time lingering over partially completed tasks. When I asked about laundry, she said, “If I’m getting tied down doing laundry, I might as well get it done and over with.”
Her secrets to nice housekeeping didn’t include fanatically frequent cleaning schedules or special mystery cleaning products. She had developed regular routines, including a twice-per-year system for those nagging big projects. I often waste time pondering and worrying about some of the big cleaning jobs instead of just doing them. I think it would be very freeing to establish a better weekly schedule and to practice a twice-per-year spring and fall deep cleaning schedule.