House Rules

Rules we abide by (or ignore) in our own houses can be complex and mysterious in origin. Where do we get these notions that fill our home rulebook?

My mother is the source of some of my rules: no ketchup bottles or milk cartons on the dining table, and from her Irish roots, “if you kill a spider, it will rain the next day.” She believed houses should always have fireplaces but no overhead lights actually used. We lived in a 27-foot trailer for some time, so I’m not sure that rule worked out for her, but I’ve remembered and obeyed it.

An old neighbor of long ago, the one, who had four little towheaded boys when our towhead joined the neighborhood line-up, was the source of several tricks and truisms. (I was so new to both homeownership and motherhood at the time that I readily absorbed her rules.) She declared that if the toilets weren’t clean, the house wouldn’t seem clean, and recommended at the approach of unexpected visitors to pull out the vacuum. A vacuum in the middle of the floor signals a cleaning in progress!

My old friend who lives on Bainbridge Island taught me about counter wiping. We joke about it, but it’s true. A nurse, she knows germs. Also, she possesses Scandinavian blue-and-white clean genes, and her house can sparkle – with towels and sheets fresh from hanging on the line outside, cut flowers on the kitchen table, homemade preserves.

No shoes in the house is second nature to anyone who has lived in Alaska.

From my very good high school friend’s mother, I learned to always leave a house or a cabin clean when departing. Dirty windows block a huge amount of light. That’s longtime Anchorage garden writer Jeff Lowenfels’s rule to encourage light for houseplants – and lifted spirits for humans.

My painter friend taught me to shut the shades and close out the dark each evening, a ritual I love here where the winter nights are even darker (not now thankfully!).

The rules for how to hang paintings come courtesy of Don and Julie Decker, the owners of the Anchorage gallery where I used to show. The museum rule is the center of the painting at about five feet above the floor – the Deckers could masterfully eyeball that height. It’s so easy to hang things too high, and as our younger son said to me recently, it looks weird once you notice.

Cheryl Mendelson in “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House” taught me her way to make beds – to add an extra flat sheet over the wool blanket, then fold the top sheet over that – protecting the blanket. Mendelson’s book contains 854 pages and many rules – great stuff really – how to “properly” wash dishes by hand, how to light a fire, how to clean most anything in a house.

And same with Ellen Sandbeck’s “Organic Housekeeping,” a gift from Mrs. Hughes, I read it from front to back, and the rule I remember is no sponges (“bacterial incubators”) for dishes. Ever. Maybe.

Rules. Are these rules about rigidity or about comfort? You must have them also. Probably some of yours contradict mine.

But we all know what rules are for, right?!

Scizzors,chore lists

12 thoughts on “House Rules

  1. That was a very timely message, Katy, as I just left a mess from hauling bags of weeds from my rooftop gardens through the condo and out for pickup. I have made an awful mess, which won’t be dealt with until I have run out of steam in the garden today.                                                  Love, Jane

  2. Good rules all. I like your “maybe” after the sponge rule. It’s so interesting the way we hear housekeeping rules and then decide, almost unconsciously, which ones to adapt to our lives. My husband always complains about my failure to do the “high dusting,” which I’m not sure actually has to be done if your mother’s rule of no overhead lights is followed. Out of sight, out of mind. I’m really enjoying this house month.

    • Thanks Carol – and I often think of that “high dusting” rule. Have never managed to fit it into the rule book really, but oh, I think of it when I see those dangling cobwebs catching beams of spring sunshine!

  3. Table rules come to my mind. I still observe my mother’s rule of no condiment jars or commercial containers of any sort on the table, and also that the salt and pepper shakers should be passed together. I was taught the basic table setting early on and to this day have to flip a knife if the blade isn’t facing the plate. In my family’s house, grace before the meal was the Catholic prayer, “Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts …” while my husband’s Presbyterian family often sang the Johnny Appleseed song. We didn’t pray with our children, and I now think we were remiss in not pausing a moment to be grateful for good food and good company.

    • You are right about being grateful. I wish we had had a “rule” to do that. Food, company – and the cook (or cooks). So good to hear from you Mary – thanks! And I had to google the Johnny Appleseed song to remember it – and now I picture those little boys sitting around the table “the sun and the rain and the apple seed” !

    • I do that knife flip thing too – even in restaurants or at friends’ houses. My 4-H leader taught me that. And she also said that the fold of the napkin had to be away from the plate with the little open corner near the bottom of the plate, maybe so you could unfold it more gracefully.

    • My husband reminded me of the “blessing” we heard one Thanksgiving, delivered by a very small boy while holding hands with the people on either side of him – his little brother being on one side: “We love our bread, we love our butter, but most of all we love eachother!”

  4. Yes, a very timely post. I’ve been thinking about washing the winter grime off of the windows, a task that always reminds me of you! But I think of it more as a seasonal tradition than a rule, which has left me wondering about rules vs. traditions vs. rituals and habits? Your house “rules” certainly make the home more inviting and aesthetically pleasing. Thanks Katy!

  5. Thinking about house rules brought memories of our required eight grade
    “home economics” class where we had quizzes on what was in each cupboard and drawer. Our poor teacher must have despaired at our lack of interest in ordering our domestic lives. Surprisingly, she’s still in “my kitchen” and a lot of the regimen upon which she insisted has come home here: baking utensils together, spices for various purposes sorted out and grouped. As a teenager, I spent no time considering the importance of such arrangements for the work we do every day. I took for granted the artistry of mothers and grandmothers.

    • I love this Susan because there must be so many house rules embedded in the way we order things in our houses (or fail to order). That would be a wonderful exploration for Red House West! In one of the red houses, I’ve seen containers with elegant handwritten labels sorting out the bottles and tubes that might be disordered in my house. In a way, it’s a very modern topic since there is so much interest in “time management” and efficiency – such a pain to search high and low for the garlic press. Thank you for writing!

  6. Oh, I have lots of rules — many from my mother. No ketchup or other jars on the table is definitely one. My standards are much more relaxed than hers — living on a farm and with various dogs and cats inside makes relaxed standards a necessity. And I have used the vacuum in the middle of the floor ploy more than once…

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