Sunday Lifestyle

What do you want to be when you grow up?

LOVE LUCY - The Philippine Star

My dreams varied back when I was a child, largely dependent on what age I was, who my afternoon playmates and friends were, what shows/movies I watched, the books I read, who I looked up to at any given time. I would run through a whole cascade of “one-day-I-want-to-be-a” scenarios — a manicurista, a nurse, a teacher, a lawyer, an interior designer, flight attendant, a singer with red lipstick on, a gymnast, a competitive Latin dancer, a librarian, the owner of a charming ice cream store — and all these in no particular order. A constant though was to have a happy, organized home, to be the lady of the house, to have linen cabinets to organize, a to-do list to tick off each day, a kitchen to run (little did I know then that cooking would not be one of my stronger points), a system to figure out — for cleaning, for buying groceries and going to the market, for decluttering, for scheduling chores and everything else in between. Yes, even back then it was very clear to me that I wanted to be a wife, a mother, a homekeeper.

For today, let me just dwell on homekeeping. Suffice to say that I thought it would be easy. As a very new bride, I was naïve enough to believe that for as long as I organized my thoughts daily into lists, at least a third of the job was done. But homekeeping, like parenting, has its constant challenges. Yes, lists help — a lot, I must say — but a sound plan that starts in the mind does not always pan out as perfectly in reality. There are many other factors involved — people, the way the day flows for each of them and how that stacks up against yours, their own rhythms, different dynamics. For quite a few years, it was always like trying to figure out the steps to a dance — some easy spots here, a few rough patches there. But as I shifted things around (literally and figuratively speaking), re-programmed my thinking and made fast friends with flexibility and tolerance, the factors rearranged themselves almost naturally and my reward came in the shape of things just falling into place somehow. But that’s cutting to the chase. Well before I, as a homekeeper, reached that point when I knew exactly which days in a week the towels and sheets had to be changed, how much to give the cook each time she had to go to the grocery and the wet market, what cleaning products to use, how much income to save regularly, how to discipline and reward the staff, how much each could advance at any given time, how much of what product should be in the freezer and pantry — plus all other such things in between — I had to learn slowly and carefully as I went along, one day at a time. Almost 17 years down the road I do not pretend to be a goddess at it, at the level of Martha Stewart who makes it look like a walk in the park, but I get by. I’m sure you do, too, in your own ways. I just know that like parenting, homekeeping requires wisdom, of the cookies-and-milk variety — it has to feel right to begin with. I find that, truly, there are no shortcuts, and that the journey matters — yes, even with all its requisite highs and lows — in that each day of it holds many little lessons to be learned, and that pared down singularly, each becomes a piece one must solve and place, much like a puzzle. Running a household, in hindsight and even with more learning ahead, becomes a training ground of sorts for making heads or tails of many other things outside the home. 

As it is with the biggest parts of our lives, any homekeeper is a sum of all she has been through — from her earliest forays in the world of dolls, toy houses and make-believe, all the memories made during summers spent in your grandmother’s home as you sat around the dining table, taking note, if only unconsciously, of how certain dishes were matched to make a perfect menu, and also where they were served. What you learn from your own mother also comes through; what you picked up from your friends as they share their own journey over laughs and lunch, or via text messages that start off and end with LOL.  And then, of course, it is always fun to take in guiltlessly the fancy homekeeping skills of shows like Dynasty (then) and Downton Abbey (now), Martha Stewart in between them, diluting and simplifying it all to a local setting. What’s not to love when you just choose to? It is a gift to enjoy the chance to make a beautiful home for your loved ones to come home to at day’s end, more so when you are able to do so joyfully, mainly by not giving in to the times you may feel exasperated about every little thing that is not “perfect” as you have defined it in your mind. For such moments, letting go (and after that, improvising as best as you can) becomes my biggest ally. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, the best-selling book wisely says.  There is much wisdom in those five little words, perfectly strung together.

To end, let me just share that, for my part, there are no big solutions really, just a series of many small, practical ones: tips I hold helpful and I find to be true. Such as:

• Writing short notes on Post-Its (“Please sort and organize by color.” “Please clean the handle well, it feels sticky.” “Please fold uniformly.” “Please wash all the vegetables before storing them in the ref”) and sticking these on the appliance/shelf/drawer that needs intervention is a good way to manage and sustain expectations.

• Putting detailed instructions on paper as opposed to just relaying things verbally to an absent-minded helper is a deterrent to the same getting lost in translation, and preparing lists constantly trains them to do the same (say yes to leading by example!).

• Treating the help like family, being generous with affirmation, just with compensation and benefits, prudent with choice of words when there is need to reprimand, because this has intangible rewards, among them loyalty, commitment, genuine affection for not just the principals but all other family members.

• If cooking is not a calling, it is okay to surrender that dream and just have five pambato dishes you can make if push comes to shove, to be supplemented by sending your cook to cooking school for a whole arsenal of cooking know-how. I was very happy with what my cooks have learned over the years from the many random classes I sent them to, and should they leave at some point then at least they bring with them new skills wherever they end up going next.

• Being superwoman all the time is not a requirement, there is joy and freedom in acknowledging that you need help, and in the process letting the people that work for you shine in their own unique strengths.

• Create nothing less than beautiful spaces, even for the most hidden and busiest parts of the house. The dirty kitchen, the laundry and storage areas should be clean and functional and efficient, even as they are well ventilated, airy and neat. A priest, an exorcist no less, once told me that ghosts and bad spirits love clutter.  But every beautiful space gently demands and inspires respect for others to keep it that way.

• Don’t be too hard on yourself. Every day is a chance to be better on the job. Don’t beat yourself up for a cobweb missed, a burnt dish, or drawers yet to be organized.

• Always have more than just a few pair of scissors.  And position them strategically in the different rooms in the house. I cannot say enough how convenient it is to always have them at the ready.











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