Beyond the doorstep

2007822_164526It is pitch black; like an idiot, I am teetering on a stool cleaning windows and muttering that there are far better ways to spend my life that doing chores. To say that I hate housework would be inaccurate. I don’t mind the jobs themselves, and I love the feeling when they are done, but, after decades of doing them, I’ve gone right off the necessity of housework.

I do not make a habit of nocturnal window-cleaning, but the rain-splattered panes had been bugging me for a while and, having rolled up my sleeves to do some heavy-duty cleaning, I didn’t feel like leaving this, the final job, till morning.  When that rare mood takes me, it is one of those ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ things. And I was having company… and that means that in spite of my best efforts, I cannot help myself.

This is an ancient habit… conditioning from earliest childhood of which I have failed abysmally to be rid. ‘Having company’, although you know with absolute certainty that they will neither know, notice nor even care whether or not you have cleaned, means that you clean regardless. In part, it is a gesture of care and respect towards your guest… in part, it a promise of comfort and welcome. Partly, I begin to think, it is a form of self  expression. Just as a artist may choose to veil a work in progress until he is happy with its form, so a home, that is always a work in progress, must feel ‘right’ in your own eyes so that you are comfortable when you open its doors.

2013121_174285It matters very little what you do or do not have. The decor and furnishings matter only in as far as they become an expression of who you are. You start with a blank canvas of empty rooms, and a home evolves, little by little, from the small things that make up your own life and personality. When you roll up your sleeves to make it presentable, what you are really doing is cleaning and polishing an image, both a snapshot of who you really are and the image of yourself that you wish others to see. Intimate truth and fantasy, hand in hand.

My home always used to be spotless, my garden neat as a pin. These days, things are rather more relaxed. Time was that I would have brandished the lawnmower at dawn, or got up early to scrub the floors just in case anyone came… conforming to the expected standards of a Yorkshirewoman who was raised in the era of well-scrubbed doorsteps and pristine lace curtains.

In spite of the itch to clean for company, my days of scrubbing the doorstep and blue-ing the curtains are over. I no longer choose to submit to that prescribed mask that was so often plastered over the face of poverty. Because that was the thing… in the days when poverty was the norm in my home county, when everyone was in the same boat, we all understood that small pride of showing a prim and proper image to the world. We hid the lacunae behind a surface so well starched that it crackled. It wasn’t about pretending you were any better than you were, or even better than your neighbours, it was about a stoic refusal to repine or advertise your family problems; it was about making the best of what you had too, taking pride in it. They aren’t bad things to subscribe to… only to become enslaved by.

The illusion held until a stranger wandered in and judged you on the whiteness of your lace curtains or the uniformity of the row of terraced houses of soot-blackened brick. They did not know what was going on behind their doors, how many times Mother was simply ‘not hungry’, or ‘really preferred’ just potatoes and gravy. Nor did they see the kinship between the families who shared a single outside toilet at the end of the street and who all hung their most intimate laundry like flags across the street. But kinship there was and a companionship that looked after its own.

I wasn’t born to the terraces. But I have lived that life too and seen it from both without and within. I have seen the shared laughter of having little, as well as the spiritual poverty that can live in the most beautiful of homes. Behind the closed doors, the well-scrubbed steps and the gleaming lace at blind windows, so many different stories played out. In one home a young woman might dream of the wider world, in another a new born child wail its welcome, in a third an old man kiss the cold cheek of his wife of fifty years before closing her eyes for a final time. Walk down that prim little street and you would never have known. Judge the repetitive façade and you missed the human stories behind it.

2003227_83739871When I think back, I can see how easily habits and stereotypes are imposed upon us by others… others who follow, all unknowing, the dictates of their own. Many never find a way to break free. All the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ define so much of our public façade in line with our perceived social standing. The fear of letting go and being yourself in face of others’ disapproval or disparagement is very real.

The ‘dark, satanic mills’ of my childhood home were not simply the cotton and woollen mills with their machinery and smoking chimneys, they were also the mechanical behaviours, the habits and customs that were passed down and absorbed without thought. Some of them…like making a welcome for a guest… still hold value, if only because they imply a level of thought and care. Others were designed to mask a reality and their ghosts serve a darker purpose, allowing us to hide behind a tended image.

Yet behind our own conventional façades, each one of us is an individual, with our own story unfolding behind curtained eyes. We can disguise them with the trappings society recognises… the scrubbed doorstep of acceptability… yet we need to be prepared to cross the threshold with each other and see what lies deeper, learning to invite others in when the inner furnishings are unpolished and there are weeds in our emotional flowerbeds, just as much as we need to learn to cross the thresholds of others and embrace them for who they are, not what they may seem to be.

*images from Leodis: photographic archive of Leeds

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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90 Responses to Beyond the doorstep

  1. Michael says:

    What a fabulous piece. All feels so very familiar though never the life i lived.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You really reminded me of why not being able to really “deep clean” my house bothers me so much. It’s a combination of everything you mentioned and mostly, a kind of pride that comes with keeping your home properly tidy. I had messes. I hate the layers of dust in my house and it really bothers me when the place feels grubby. I can’t do the kind of cleaning I always did, but when i can — even if NO one is coming that I know about, i like to know that anyone who drops in will see a house set in order.

    Duke the Dogge at the basket in which we kept the toys. Garry said we should get some kind of “plastic thing” to hold them.

    “They’re ugly,” I said.
    “Who cares?” he asked. “it’s just something to hold a bunch of dog toys.”
    “I care,” I said. It was obvious this answer completely baffled him and this may be one of the fundamental differences between the sexes.

    He really doesn’t care, but I really do. He was never expected to keep a house. it wasn’t part of his upbringing. Work was important, but housekeeping? Nope.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Making house feel like a home is all in the details…and those details are probably different for all of us. Ani’s toys are in a black, plastic tub… but you can’t see it for the overflow and it is tucked away…. I get that 🙂

      Like

  3. barbtaub says:

    And yet… there you are, scrubbing away in the dark.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. kim881 says:

    What a great piece, Sue. It reminds me of growing up in my grandparents’ terrace, where the front room was the ‘best’ room, where nobody went unless we had visitors, and we spent most of our time in the ‘back room’ or parlour that led onto the scullery. My nan was very house-proud and, when she taught me to iron, I had to do everything, from the socks and pants to handkerchiefs and tea towels! My mum was the same, so my flat, and later cottage, was never pristine – something was always out of place or there was a duty area, just to remind me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Clean, but not always tidy as far as I was concerned, after growing up in a similar environment. I still feel guilty about not always ironing sheets…
      I still do it sometimes though, just for old times sake, I think 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Adele Marie says:

    A fascinating article, Sue. We had a tradition growing up in Orkney, where the guest always got the best of what you had. But the cleaning didn’t have to be done, working on the farm or at the sea was time-consuming but, I do remember when my Mother came to visit she would clean for Adeline and weeks after Adeline would be on the phone to her asking, “Mary, where have you put this? Where have you put that?” lol xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jenanita01 says:

    I used to be like this, preferring not to see myself as others might, if I let my standards slip. These days I can’t keep up with the dust and grime, and it gets done if and when I feel like it. If your visitors are any good, they will only see you, and not the dust in the corner!

    Like

  7. Lovely piece, Sue. It’s what I could see, especially in the back to backs in Leeds, the whited doorsteps and the women in pinnies defying anyone to say their house wasn’t clean as a pin. We didn’t go in for that, and the ‘front room’ in my grandma’s house was the north-facing room that never needed cleaning because nobody ever went in it anyway once the children left home and Granddad died.

    Like

  8. Mary Smith says:

    A great piece, Sue, which resonated with me on many levels. I have become more relaxed about not living in a fastidiously clean house – except before visitors come and before going away on holiday. And for New Year’s day! Husband doesn’t understand the need to clean the house from top to bottom before we go away but the thought of returnign to a messy house would ruin my holiday. I have a friend (she’s from Yorkshire) and we’ve known each other for more than quarter of a century so we both know we don’t always live in dust-free beautifully clean homes on a daily basis – yet we each still go into manic house-cleaning activity if the other is coming to stay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      That made me chuckle, Mary. I can’t go away, even for the weekend, without cleaning…but I can fail to wash up teaspoons till I run out on a daily basis…as long as no-one is coming 🙂 We really are odd creatures…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. willowdot21 says:

    I do so agree Sue, I had all the above drummed into me as child, I learned from example that everything must be just so, everyone who turned up on the doorstep had to be fed ( even if we got less and as you say mum least) There was a day for every job, Monday washing, Tuesday cleaning Wednesday and Saturday shopping, Thursday And Friday I forget, except we ate fish every Friday. Sunday church.
    What strikes me most is it was so much keeping up appearances, almost as if it was a sin to have problems. You brought back so many memories and thoughts 💗💜

    Like

  10. The beauty of your blog, Sue, is that you so eloquently express those issues we all share. There is a slight gender difference. While I may be madly cleaning the interior, prepping the food that I find acceptable, the husband is manicuring the lawn, washing the car…priorities we learned at an early age and hard to shake. An excellent piece…I’m off to vacuum.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It is odd how these things stay with us 🙂
      House and garden have mainly been my responsibility over the years, what with one thing and another. Now there’s just me and the dog…and though she will dig holes ( whether I like it or not) she’s scared of the lawnmower 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. fransiweinstein says:

    Love this Sue. My upbringing also included cleaning for company — even if the company was family or very close friends with whom we spent lots of time. And, like you, I still do it to this day, even though I am far more relaxed when it’s just me. I also grew up in a time when people cared about what others thought of them — that I never subscribed to though. I have never gone out of my way to offend anyone and I’m not rude and don’t do outrageous things but I have always believed that I have the right to live my life as I see fit and it’s okay if not everyone agrees with my choices. It was an unusual stance for the time, I admit, but that didn’t stop me.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      That doesn’t surprise me at all, Fransi. 🙂
      There is a vast difference between conforming because you daren’t do otherwise and being considerate of other people’s feelings.
      I’ve always felt it to be a mark of respect to clean before guests arrive…respect both for them and for me. Even though I know my usual guest doesn’t care a fig about what the place looks like. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I clean for company, and that’s about it, Sue. We’re pretty disheveled the rest of the time. 🙂 This post struck a cord from my old counseling days when I did home visits with struggling families. There may have been a lack of money and pretty things and spotless homes, but there was often a richness of heart and dreams amidst a community that hung together and helped each other to the best of their abilities. As we say in the biz, never judge a book by its cover. 🙂

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It is all too easy to cover the holes in the heart with ‘things’, but the holes remain. Living in poorer communities and circumstances, you learn fast the things tat really matter cannot be bought.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow. A terrific piece. I feel like I’ve seen it. Well done. 🙂

    Like

  14. pjlazos says:

    Beautiful story. Both love and hate passed down from generation to generation. We are encouraged to look beyond our past in creating our future but it’s the bedrock of who we are. Hard to let go of and sometimes we don’t even want to.😘

    Like

  15. Ali Isaac says:

    Beautiful post. I grew up on a street like that too… life in the north west was not much different to life in the north east. With sporty teens in the house though, nothing stays clean for long, so I do hate cleaning chores, but that will probably pass once they’ve moved on and it’s just me Conor and Carys at home. I’m not so sure I’ll like that, even with less cleaning to do. How time flies.

    Like

  16. Wendy Janes says:

    What a wonderful piece, Sue. Your writing has left me feeling quite nostalgic and thoughtful now. Thank you.

    Like

  17. dgkaye says:

    Loved this Sue. I used to be a lot like your description of those who cleaned incessantly, God forbid someone would visit by surprise and everything wasn’t in its place, lol. I think the years and wisdom we gain through them turn our thoughts more toward a well lived life. As long as things are clean, they can stand to be a little untidy for awhile. ❤

    Like

  18. noelleg44 says:

    I am constantly amazed at how little things you do inspire such great prose! I’m sure Ani keeps you busy cleaning – your home and her!

    Like

  19. noelleg44 says:

    Did you ever tell us how you and Ani found each other? How old is she? Since we lost Angel, I am a vicarious dog owner….

    Like

  20. Pingback: September is the BEST time for what activity? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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