Telling this simple story of “cleaning house” really requires much more than just a few photos. And you’ll still never understand the depth of this effort. Really, you won’t. After 22 years together, Brian and I have lived in a lot of houses. So when I tell friends that I spent the majority of my summer getting our house organized and hosting guests, and I find myself trying to explain the bags under my eyes and the depth of my efforts, some of them really don’t get it. And how could they? After all, we’re all as busy as we make ourselves, right? And what’s the big deal about having a clean house, anyway?
Where do I begin?
Maybe I should begin when we moved into our sweet Seattle starter home in 2005 and painted every room, remodeled the basement, removed the old vermiculite insulation by hand, got eaten by tropical rat mites, added a new roof, redid the backyard, painted the exterior, and lived through numerous iterations of how to entertain babies in a 1942 bungalow?
Actually, to be totally truthful and complete, I should begin 10-1/2 years ago when our baby girl was born and the first shadows of true infant chaos ensued. That’s where to start: When everything was overturned and replaced by cribs and highchairs, diapers and tot toys, and cycles of life surrounding naptime and sleep deprivation.
Or maybe I should start eight years ago when our baby boy entered the world, had a stint in the NICU, and left me with a battered brain filled with anxiety until he turned into a walking, talking bundle of toddler perfection. That’s the heart of the story. Start there.
Or–wait. I think I should begin when we sold our first house and were homeless for several days waiting for the nearby rental home to be readied for our arrival, and then drove up with a 30-foot moving truck to discover that the entire house had been damaged by cat pee. That was a funny moment. I’ll start there.
But–how about after our happy time living in a historic Wallingford rental home, when we moved into temporary housing after our 12-month lease was interrupted by the owner returning two months early and we needed housing, stat–and I searched for something furnished and upscale, and at 2 a.m. when we finally moved all our stuff into the living room, I saw the note propped on the nightstand: “Treated for bedbugs.” Should I start there, at the moment with a sinking stomach that I looked at our little girl sleeping peacefully in her bed in the hot summer air, and pulled back our bedsheets to find a single, slowly slithering bedbug in the seam? We moved every piece off furniture of the floor, spent a fitful night on the floor in a tent, left 20 frustrated messages on the voice mail of the property manager (and discovered that the entire building was infested with bedbugs, a detail he had decided not necessary to reveal) and moved into a hotel the next day.
I should start there. That’s when life on our island began. It’s funny how bugs were the beginning of something so beautiful.
But maybe that’s too many stories to tell.
So maybe I should start when we moved from that hotel and in a sudden fit of logic spurred by my sister, we followed a Craig’s List ad, made the leap, and finally relocated to Bainbridge Island? We had been considering it for years, but hadn’t found a house we wanted to buy. So we rented a furnished cottage until we bought our first island home. The furnished cottage was a low for us, believe it or not, five months in a dark house with a toddler boy, unsafe stairs, none of our furniture or toys, just a few clothes we had brought with us, and all the homesickness that accompanies any move away from the comforts of longtime friends.
But then we bought our first island house and moved in just in time to celebrate our first Bainbridge Christmas. And it was beautiful. And nothing needed to be remodeled or cleaned or de-bugged. The yard needed about a billion yards of fill dirt to form a front yard, but other than that, we were going to sit still for awhile. And life started to settle. We thought–we will never unpack another box for as long as we live. Despite the fact that it wasn’t our perfect dream home, that first island home was a much-needed fairytale pause for our beleaguered parental souls.
In that home, we watched our kids grow from newly-minted toddler and preschooler to elementary school students. I did a lot of cleaning then. Oh, my. I should begin there. We had wonderful gatherings, redid the entire front yard, built a garden, organized closets and started to feel like grown-ups, got a puppy that peed all over everything, replaced the carpet, and refurnished the house.
I should tell about the four coats of paint in the kitchen because I realized I hadn’t meant to order pale straw, but rather vanilla ice cream as the paint color for the walls. Oh, if walls could talk they would tell stories of me cursing and drinking wine on a ladder in that beautiful kitchen.
But while we were living in that sweet house, making hugelkultur beds for the first time, living our lives and cooking our food and entertaining our friends, I went for long walks through winding historic farmlands in our nearby Eagledale neighborhood and I found myself explaining to one of my best friends that we’d never move unless a farmhouse went up for sale on one of two streets, because that would be the stuff dreams were made of and I wanted a place soaked in stories and history, sunshine and rain, a place to grow food and our family, a home that would be with us forever: The place with a porch and rocking chairs and wild birds and flowers, children and grandchildren and food everywhere–a place I somehow magically saw when I first kissed The Good Man 22 years ago.
SO I should really begin this story on that magical day in May when my husband, my real estate agent, and one of my best friends all sent me photos of a 1901 farmhouse on five acres in my favorite neighborhood in all the world….And I stepped onto this property and fell deeply, desperately in love with every nook and cranny in the house and every small winding path on the property, and every vista and every tree.
We gulped, bid on it, bit our nails to nubbins waiting for the news that we got it, thanked all our lucky stars in every universe, and put our old house up for sale. And then we moved.
So, really, I think I should start with the summer we first moved into our farmhouse. Life begins here. We left our old house entirely furnished so that we could sell it without hiring a staging service. Our agent hosted lots of open houses. There was a bit of a dip in the summer market. Still, we racked up hundreds of real estate cards, earned “most popular listing on Bainbridge,” and kept hearing about the offers that would be rolling in that coming Wednesday. And we didn’t sell our house. Not that first week, or the next, or the next after that. Something was amiss with bidding wars and Seattle families and the messaging that was being delivered to would-be buyers, and…our beautiful first island house sat unsold. So, we finally took it off the market and rented it to a family in transition, fully furnished, for five months.
To get by, we started adding a few things to our farmhouse, bit by bit.
For awhile there it seemed like all we had were our undies and some blow-up beds and a bunch of dust-bunnies in every corner of the house.
Nearly a year later, we finally sold our old house and moved our furniture into our farmhouse. Life in a furnished farmhouse finally began.
Do I begin there?
Or do I begin when, just as we got all our furniture back, and ended the passive state of not being in control of outcomes–and decided choicefully, purposefully, to improve our state of affairs and started a Farmhouse Kitchen Remodel that extended into the entire main floor, and we spent the entire summer in dust and mess, cooking on a Coleman stove on the porch and washing dishes in the bathtub?
Do I show you all the pictures of disorganized drawers and rotting food in an old fridge? Or the funny view of the floor beneath our kitchen when we discovered how many shims were used to level the flooring? Or what lay beneath? (I think I should show something here to just visually give you the real deal.)
Do I show you all the photos of our in-process kitchen as we lived in a remodel state for months?
Maybe I start when the kitchen island was installed and I suddenly had a functional kitchen with surfaces that were begging to be used? I sat on the ground and hugged our oven and might have cried just a bit.
Or do I start a few weeks ago when we donated a weekend at our house to our kids’ elementary school auction–“Eat off the land! Drink fine Northwest wine! Gather the eggs! Enjoy a historic farmhouse!”–and I was thrown into a deep tizzy of realization that our home WAS IN NO WAY READY to be that paradise I had promised…that it needed dishes and linens and bar stools and an organized kitchen and beds and bed frames and clean windows not covered in pawprints and dog breath and porches free of spiders and cobwebs and floors not covered in drips of water from children grabbing cups and then walking across the drips with dirty feet and leaving marks everywhere and places to sit on the porch and drawers not filled with acres of junk and a spare bedroom not filled with boxes to the ceiling and a basement not filled with wood left over from the remodel and a garage cleaned out so we could move the boxes into it and make a spare room that was presentable and I needed to paint the living room walls because no amount of scrubbing with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser would solve the dog scratches and finger prints AND OH MY GOD we needed drinking cups and wine glasses because every single one had broken in the hands of our toddler children YEARS AGO and I guess we’d never replaced them?
WHY WAS I SO STUPID TO AUCTION OFF OUR HOUSE FOR A WEEKEND? WHY DIDN’T I JUST WRITE A CHECK????? (My husband wants to know this, too.)
And finally, just like that, voila! in a matter of magic minutes, the place was perfect (oh hahahahahaha if only that was true–THANK GOD FOR MY MOTHER) and 15 near-strangers came to stay in our perfect house…and they gathered the eggs and picked the broccoli and played guitar on our couch and ran around the yard and played and laughed, and took our kayaks out in the water…and then called to announce that unfortunately during their stay, they discovered that one of the sweet families had arrived with visible lice.
They were so kind, they had been washing all our linens on hot and bagging up our bedding and they wanted to put us up in a hotel for two days so all the lice could die. We know from experience (a story for another time) that it takes 48 hours for the lice to die. Then you can move back in and start living again.
I was so tired. Oh, we all were. There was some kind of deep reservoir of tiredness that had been reopened throughout this process. But also–I didn’t want to stay in a hotel. The garden needed to be tended to. And we’d been too tired to go backpacking with our kids. And we’d already spent the weekend in the hot sun walking our dog around on a leash while mooching off of the generosity of wonderful friends who rescued us when we realized we were too tired to go anywhere else (for the second time…). Even when they offered their house for as long as we needed it, we were ready to give them some autonomy again. And it didn’t seem right to have an auction donation turn into an added expense for the purchasers after they’d spent a good portion of their vacation washing linens.
So there. We decided to camp on our property. We set up our tent and looked at the big sky of stars that stared down at us from an unimaginably beautiful night sky.
And the kids thought it was so super cool that we had a port-a-potty in the bushes, and they set up a flag system so nobody would be interrupted while using it. (Of course, if I were to tell you they used paper towels instead of biodegradable toilet paper, and that I needed to use a glove to remove the innards of the port-a-potty, you might be too grossed out to follow this blog anymore, so I won’t go there.)
Which leads me to the day we hired professional cleaners to clean everything again, to wipe down and vacuum every surface that might have a louse or a nit, and we moved back in to our house, and got ready to welcome my best friend, her husband, and her three daughters the next day.
And here, at last, we really arrive to the topic at hand: Cleaning house. Here is some photo documentation of our clean old farmhouse so you’ll know next time when you arrive to a mess that it was once this perfect. Look! It has new dishes. And a new couch. And clean surfaces. And counter-height country barstools that we found at IKEA that work perfectly. And an old farmhouse table that we found on Craig’s List when we first moved here and it was the sole piece of furniture except for the dog bed. And the cupboards are not filled with junk. And the counters are not covered in clutter. And there are pretty bouquets. And homemade rose petal water just sitting there looking so pretty you’d never know that my best friend from college and I sorted spiders and nearly fell off ladders to make it. It may seem so unbelievably superficial. It certainly pales in comparison to the much bigger fish to fry out there in the world. But for now, for today, please enjoy it. Please tell me you love it. Because it may look like just another clean house. But it took us 14 years to clean it.
And though you can’t really tell, the house is clean down to its seams. And behind every cupboard door rests organized pots and pans and baking accouterments.
And it’s lice-free, nit-free, mite-free, diaper-free, dog-poop-free, spiderweb-free, and currently even vomit-free. So many bonuses. Please tell me you love it with all your heart. Please and thank you.