Faith Gong: A Diary of Housekeeping in Three Acts

I’m going to begin with a thumbnail sketch:

My 7-year-old daughter came downstairs the other morning to find that my husband had cleaned out the oversized “comfy chair” in front of our woodstove while she slept. He’d taken up the seat cushion, removed the detritus that tends to gather underneath, and wiped the smudges and stains from the upholstery.

“Daddy, where’s my baggie?” she asked.

“What baggie?”

“The one I put under the chair cushion!” she said, increasingly agitated.

“The baggie that you put under the chair cushion?” he repeated. “I don’t know. I probably threw it out when I was cleaning.”

WHAT?!?” she wailed. “NOOOOO! Why would you throw that out?!? Why wouldn’t you ask first?”

“I’m sorry,” my husband replied, getting agitated himself. “I didn’t know it was yours. What was in it that was so important?”

“My fingernail!” she sobbed.

My husband paused, his face a mixture of confusion and disgust, and looked questioningly in my direction. I nodded in assent: “Her fingernail.”

(If you are trying to envision the situation that led to this scene and wondering whether there was a moment when my daughter put her fingernail clipping in a plastic bag and announced to me, “I’m going to keep this safe in the comfy chair for now,” and I nodded — that’s exactly what happened. Such is my life.)

As my husband walked away, still shaking his head, I attempted to comfort my daughter.

“Your fingernails are always growing, so you can get another one before too long,” I soothed her.

“But it was such a big one!” she sobbed.

***

One of the bright spots in the past 10 months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions has been having my husband around the house more. My children and I feel this way, at least; I’m not sure my husband would agree.

Don’t get me wrong: He loves spending time with our family. (Although I can’t be sure, I’m guessing we’re a bit more fun than the Economics Department.) He enjoys finding creative ways to boost everyone’s mental and physical health by getting us all outdoors and active. And he happily carries his share of the household chores and childcare.

But the state of our house drives him bonkers: the winter gear tossed every-which-way in the mudroom, the books and artwork littering all flat surfaces, the building projects cluttering the living room carpet, and the fingernail trimmings under the chair cushions. During his time at home, he’s thrown himself into a variety of tidying projects, including organizing the basement, cleaning out the garage, neatening the pantry (multiple times), wrestling the mudroom into some semblance of order, and even building racks to store our tangle of skis and poles in the garage.

The wonderful thing about people is that they change, often in unexpected ways. When I first met and married my husband, I would never have predicted this type of nesting behavior. Before we got married, he lived with several 20-something male colleagues in a rental house that looked…a bit like our house does now, actually. My husband came to our marriage with one mattress (which he’d used to sleep on the floor) and an assortment of plastic bins in which he stored all of his earthly possessions. One of our first marital disputes had to do with him leaving his half-drunk glasses of water all over our apartment (like the little boy in the movie Signs, but with no threat of alien invasion.) Once, while visiting my in-laws, my husband’s mother entered the kitchen, looked at all the cabinet doors that my husband had left open, chuckled, and said to me, “Well, he’s your problem now!”

But now, my husband and I often spend our time alone together discussing strategies for organizing our lives. In these conversations, I’ll often remind him that we do have five children, so decluttering can only take us so far. Still, although I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, I sometimes pick a “word of the year” on which to reflect. My word this year is “less.” I suspect it means different things to my husband and to me, but it makes him happy all the same.

***

So much of running a household, particularly a household with many young children and pets, involves repeating the same tasks over and over with only temporary results. It feels like running at breakneck speed…in place. You vacuum the floor, and a couple of hours later It’s covered with spilled popcorn kernels and grit tracked in from outside. You wash the dishes and launder the clothes, only to do it all over again the next day. You shop for groceries and prepare food, which disappears. I won’t even get into the bathrooms.

Our baby is quickly becoming a toddler, so his four older sisters are beginning to learn firsthand about the futility of human effort.

Two things happened recently: our son began taking his first tentative steps, and we took down the Christmas tree — thereby opening up a large swath of living room floor for the first time in a month. With the living room floor free again, we brought up the bin of Playmobil figures and buildings that had been consigned to the basement for the holiday season, and my daughters began doing what they do best together: creating a world.

They established the Playmobil castle and house, set up a store, and created other buildings from Lincoln Logs and Magna-tiles. It was a beautiful little community, populated by Playmobil characters of all ages, races, and time periods.

Then their little brother woke up from his nap.

Our living room floor has become a battleground between my daughters’ creative efforts and their little brother’s destructive hands. The shrieking starts whenever he begins crawling in the general direction of the living room.

We remind them that their brother, whom they love dearly, does need to be able to share our house. We remind them that the fun is in the building, and that their creations were never meant to be permanent fixtures in our living room (“Think of them like sandcastles,” my husband counseled).

“Why does he just knock everything down?!?” one of my daughters complained. “Why does he always do that? Will he be like this forever?!?”

“No, sweetie, he won’t be like this forever,” I assured her. “It’s just that it’s easiest to knock things down; you have to grow up a little bit before you learn to build things up.”

Occasionally, in the middle of a mundane day, something happens that seems to have a much broader application. This was one of those moments.

It’s easiest to knock things down; you have to grow up a little before you learn to build things up.

I suspect that this applies to much more than just blocks, housekeeping, and family life.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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