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Household Skullduggery

Can a clutterbug and a clean freak live together without a few secret maneuvers? I don't think so

I apologize to the rest of you if archaeologists in the distant future ever stumble onto my home in an excavation site. Such a discovery could inspire these scholars to write book-length studies claiming that all family groups from our culture shared the same peculiar habits.

"Why," the future archaeologists would wonder, "did inhabitants of late 20th-century North America hide old birthday cards in their underwear drawers? And why did they stuff bags of outdated newspapers in their closets?"

Digging a little further, they would unearth a decade's worth of scenic wall calendars from behind the microwave. Then they'd locate the ticket stubs and programs from family outings stuck between place mats in the linen closet.

In case you're wondering, the answer is simple: it was vital to do these things to preserve the peaceful coexistence of the particular North Americans who resided at my address. That's because my home is ruled by the housekeeping equivalent of Jekyll and Hyde.

My husband, Mark, is a highly organized neat freak, the Jekyll role in our domestic partnership. When he walks through the living room, magazines jump up off the floor and arrange themselves tastefully (by issue date) on the coffee table. Encyclopaedias re-alphabetize themselves. Dust balls roll out from under the sofa and march single file to the trash can.

Then there's me, a bit absentminded and downright comfortable with clutter. Just call me Hyde. When I walk through the room, magazines hurl themselves off end tables (kamikaze-style) onto the carpet. Dirty socks leap from the laundry basket and scurry underneath the recliner.

Mark loves vacant counter tops and uncluttered desks. Any item not specifically required for sustaining life in the next 15 minutes he deems unnecessary and throws away.

I live to be organized too, but not today. I plan to be organized tomorrow. I have never encountered an "unnecessary item" in my life. Any objects that wander in the front door, from broken-handled brooms to single-bladed scissors, appear to me somehow useful. And I get nervous when my countertops are showing.

How have two such opposite-minded people managed 16 years of happy marriage? It has a lot to do with deep, abiding love and the calculated use of clutter concealment. I simply hide all my important stuff where Mark can't find it.

Hence the underwear drawer full of old birthday cards (which I will one day organize in a scrapbook); the closets full of newspapers (containing articles I will one day clip and organize in a scrapbook); the scenic wall calendars (full of attractive pictures I will one day mount on construction paper and organize in a scrapbook); and a linen closet full of family-outing keepsakes (which I will one day sort and—you know the rest).

Before you judge me too harshly, consider how you might feel if you found yourself chasing the end of your garden hose across the lawn because your obsessively organized mate was around the corner rolling it up before you could finish dousing the petunias. Or how might you react if the clean clothes you laid out in the morning were routinely rounded up and placed in the laundry hamper before you could even get out of the shower?

And I'm not alone in this game. Mark carries out his own secret maneuvers. For instance, if a nice sturdy box finds its way into our home while I'm out (the kind of box Mark knows I will fill with more vital stuff) he breaks it down and hides it behind the trash bin in the garage.

Little does he know, I have a counter plan. If I intercept a sturdy box while Mark is gone, I seal it with clear tape, label it (as though it actually contained something) and stack it in the basement. That way, Mark doesn't suspect it's empty and just waiting to be filled with more stuff.

The really frightening part is that our children have begun copying our behavior. Lately, when I've opened the piano bench to stash some cereal box tops (I'm saving up for a Hits from the Seventies CD), I've encountered preschool craft items and crayon drawings that I didn't hide there. Our five-year-old son had a simple answer: "I didn't want Dad to throw them away."

And my daughter, 11 years old and savvy to her mother's Hyde-like habits, is careful to keep her library books secured in her room, where they can't be carried off to one of my infamous piles, never to be seen again.

But I'm not the only parent who makes her nervous. She's equally careful to keep her homework off the kitchen counter, where her father may collect it in one of his frequent "clean sweeps" through the area and throw it away before she has a chance to hand it in.

I doubt that archaeologists excavating our home will ever understand how domestic cohabitation spawned elaborate household rituals like math papers hidden under cookbooks, completely empty boxes sealed and stacked in the basement, and preschool craft items stuffed in the piano bench. But there's nothing I can do about it. We're happy—now that we've learned to live together in an atmosphere of peace and good-natured skullduggery.

Renae Bottom is a writer, newspaper reporter and school teacher. She and her family live in Imperial, Nebraska.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Cleanliness; Marriage; Organization
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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