“You let him inside the house?” I practically barked at my poor husband on a recent afternoon. One might think Jack the Ripper – not our friendly next-door neighbor wondering whether we’d solved our plumbing problem – had been the person who knocked on our door.

The source of my over-the-top anxiety? The house was a mess. Chilly winter days had caused the pileup of newspapers, mail and mufflers on the dining room table and dishes waiting to be loaded into the dishwasher.

I was mortified. That unannounced visit had revealed me as – horror of horrors – a terrible housekeeper.

My rational husband looked at me, then looked at the clutter and gave me one of those husband stares that said, without a single word, “You’re nuts!”

Vic would argue that neighbor Chet, who has a beautiful home, had more important things to worry about than the state of our domesticity. He wasn’t judging me on the mess.

“Weren’t you embarrassed?” I asked a man who clearly wasn’t.

Here’s the thing: even in a world in which we women are learning to demand our rights, assert our needs and to “lean in” like Sheryl Sandberg preaches, I still feel responsible for the domestic landscape. Our home.

This river runs deep.

I grew up in an era when my late mother vacuumed nearly every day in a home that was her pride and joy.

Mom only went out into the world – and what turned out to be a meaningful career – when she thought we could manage without her. But the ultimate responsibility as Chief of Home Front Operations still rested with her.

I was caught in what was probably the last generation to buy into that, and then I lived through drastically changing times.

Betty Friedan had announced to us that the world was, in her immortal words, “bigger than a baked potato,” and working wives/mothers were just starting to emerge from the cocoon of domesticity. But ever so gingerly.

So yes, Chet’s unannounced arrival threw me, because lodged in some out-of-the way brain cells is the implanted notion that yes, I am still old-school: If the house is messy, and a man and woman live in it, it’s still the woman’s fault.

Rational? Of course not. But easy to shake off? Not at all.

There are women who are really good at achieving and preserving order. I am decidedly not good at either.

A friend of mine – a woman I love and admire – truly finds deep satisfaction in “tidying” her empty nest several times a day. And wouldn’t you know she married a man who is, well, a slob. He says it of himself, and without embarrassment. She accepts that and makes it work for them.

In our case, I’m the one who adores adornment and is the clutterer. My husband lives by the home concept that less is more.

So yes, our mess is more often mine than his. But who’s counting?

And on the self-created report card in my head there sometimes lurks the notion that while I may be a good person, I’m really not a good wife. Good wives create and maintain orderly homes, and maybe even bake pies from scratch and polish silver. They do not leave beds unmade or laundry in heaps in the laundry room.

For a while, my husband and I went round and round about the Chet incident. And then I woke up one morning and looked around me.

What our neighbor saw was real life: piled up newspapers, coffee cups, tchotchkes – the real home of real people.

And I made a giant realization: Home is where the heart is. And the mess, too.

February 2016
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