Hot Mess


Years ago, as my toddler nephew stooped to pick up a fallen morsel from the floor, his older brother intervened.

“You can never eat food that falls on the floor!” Peter warned knowingly. Then he added an important caveat: “Except at Aunt Marlene’s house.”

He was referring to my childhood home—a place so legendarily spotless and orderly that a friend joked you could actually locate a lost piece of lint there. Nothing in my mother’s house was ever out of place or (heaven forbid) actually dirty. My four brothers and I weren’t allowed to have so much as a messy drawer. After 50 years, the grout on the bathroom tile gleams as if it were brand new. The garage shelves are tidier than most people’s living rooms.

One of two things can happen when you grow up in a house that exceptionally clean and organized and then are left to your own devices: you can internalize and embrace the order, or you can flat out reject it, running screaming in the other direction. I am sad to report that I fall squarely into the latter category. For the almost 30 years since I left my parents’ house for college, never to return, I have cut an enormously messy swath through life.

It’s a part of me I’m not particularly proud of, one that doesn’t really jibe with my overall solid citizen status. I’ve always been the quintessential rule follower; the rest of my life is not even remotely disorderly. But when it comes to putting away laundry? Filing bills? Organizing the linen closet? That’s not—how shall we say?—my strong suit. Call it my one small form of rebellion. Paging Dr. Freud.

For many years I blamed the problem, as unrepentant messies will do, on my environment. It wasn’t my fault that I was disorganized, you see. It was that the places I lived in couldn’t contain my mess. If I just had the right living environment, I was certain that I would miraculously transform into a latter-day Martha Stewart. Though I started to become suspicious when every home I lived in, even as they grew in size, would inevitably devolve into disorder, I held tight to the fallacy. But then I realized that my car was messy. My purse was messy. My computer desktop was messy. And one day, as I surveyed my cluttered bedroom, I had an epiphany. I thought of my good friend Annie, whose house was always spotless. “This place would be neat if Annie lived here,” I realized dejectedly. So much for that excuse.

I don’t enjoy being messy: I hate myself for it. I’m all too aware of what it costs me. Things in my life disappear with alarming regularity, as if swallowed up by black holes, and I spend inordinate amounts of time looking for them. (First rule of messies club: the last place you look for something is the place where it’s actually supposed to be kept. That is, if there actually is a place it’s supposed to be kept.) It has caused unnecessary tension in my marriage.

The problem only got worse once I had kids, who add a layer of chaos to the lives of even the most orderly moms and dads. So I’ve tried to change. Really, I have. Twice I’ve hired professional organizers to try to rescue me from the Sea of Clutter and land me safely on the Island of Orderliness. But it’s as if I am immune to their charms, their systems. They speak a language that my brain just cannot decode. After 40-plus years of living like this, I’m thinking it’s just the way it’s going to have to be.

Or does it?

This spring marks a major milestone for our family. After 12 years in a cozy Mount Washington cottage, we are renovating a gracious American foursquare a few blocks away. It’s a historic house oozing with character. And space! We’ll actually have a full-fledged mudroom to house the backpacks and baseball gloves and shinguards. The master bedroom will have a roomy walk-in closet. I no longer will have to share a bathroom with my 7-year-old, whose propensity for leaving at least 400 times as much toothpaste in the sink as he actually uses on his teeth is truly a thing of wonder.

I’ve spent the last few months in a state of constant excitement, scrutinizing floor plans and perusing Pinterest, dreaming about how things will be in our lovely new home. There’s something undeniably powerful about feeling good about the place you live, a kind of magical inner calm that comes from having your space work perfectly for your family’s needs. I know I am extraordinarily fortunate to be able to turn this house into exactly what we would like it to be.

And part of that is knowing what I don’t want it to be: messy. I am vowing that when we move to the new house, I’m turning over a new leaf. It’s the end of the line for you, messy self. And this time I mean it. No, really.

Maybe one day my kids will joke that they grew up in a house so clean you could eat off the floors. OK, maybe that’s a little too much to ask for. But a girl can still dream, can’t she?

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.

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