During one memorable episode, Dan Conner, the beer-bellied, drywallin' dad on the popular sitcom "Roseanne," uttered a wise mission statement to his three children -- a statement that should be framed in the living room of every home. In preparation for his wife's homecoming, Dan decided to rally the troops and clean the house to surprise her. It was to be a mammoth task: Dirty clothes were strewn on the sofa, jackets and boots were piled on the stairwell, and a sinkful of dirty dishes exhibited evidence of a week's worth of meals. "Remember, kids," Dan said, "we're going for the illusion of clean." By the time TV's favorite domestic goddess walked through the front door of her kingdom, it did, indeed, seem as if the Conners had achieved their common goal.
But you haven't seen my house, you say. The Conners' home is an impossible dream. As extended families prepare to gather for the holidays, this question is being asked right now in homes everywhere: How on earth are you going to create the illusion of clean in time for your guests' arrival? Where do you start? The question is an overwhelming one as you begin to look around and survey the mess created by your hectic lives. While Dan Conner's statement was a wise one, you may be shooting for something a bit more presentable than the Conners' love nest. Here are a few tips to get you started.
You've got to prioritize. Where are your guests going to be spending their time? Are they coming for the day or for an extended visit? If it's just for the afternoon or for Christmas dinner, it's time to tackle the living room and put the back bedroom on the back burner.
It's also time to enlist the aid of your fellow house-dwellers. Mom and Dad shouldn't have all the fun. Contrary to popular belief, kids can chip in. A little bribery might be necessary -- a visit to the ice cream store or maybe a movie and pizza night for a job well done, perhaps. Take a break every now and then. Turn on some music and do what you can to lighten the atmosphere. There are actually quite a few chores in which your kids can participate: sweeping the floor, folding laundry, taking out the garbage, wiping down counters and vanities, dusting furniture, cleaning mirrors and windows and vacuuming floors. The results won't be perfect, and by all means, don't criticize their performance unless you catch them watching TV instead of doing their assigned tasks. Thank them for their help, and inspire them by telling them that the more everyone pitches in, the faster the house will be cleaned, and the sooner everyone can have fun. If your kids surprise you and do a bang-up job, make the rewards greater -- reserve the next day as play day, and take the family out somewhere.
Take a moment to consider what you can live with -- and what you can't. The dirty dishes should be taken care of and the kitchen floor swept, the carpet should be vacuumed and the clothes strewn about the living room should be assorted. But that stack of magazines in the corner -- the one you've been meaning to sort through and donate to your local library -- that, perhaps, can be designated a post-new year's job. After all, it's not as if nobody lives in your home; let's be realistic here. It's OK to have shelves in your living room that look as if people occasionally remove books from them. You just dust around your books and slightly disheveled objets d'art, and resolve to organize them after you bid your guests aideu.
If you're having a tough time deciding what should be tackled now versus later, consider what turns you off when you enter someone else's home. No, not the one down the street that looks like Martha Stewart's country home. I mean the realistic one next door like yours, with the real family with real kids and a dog. Odds are that you notice details in the kitchen and living room, since that's where you're likely to have been invited. Crumbs on the counter? Dirty pans on the stove? Breakfast dishes on the table? A dirty ashtray on the coffee table? The dog's pillow in the middle of the living room where others can trip over it? These are the things you'll want to consider when cleaning your own mess. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of seconds -- you stack the magazines strewn across your coffee table into one neat stack, for example, after dusting the tabletop. It's amazing how much neater a kitchen looks after the countertops have been sprayed and wiped clean. Even if you don't have time to tackle all of the dishes, merely stacking them in one spot will do wonders for your kitchen -- and your psyche. That touches on our next point.
Move everything together in one place, if possible. Take, for example, your dirty clothes. They're probably everywhere, right? On the kids' bedroom floors, on your own bedroom floor, in the bathroom, slung over that exercise machine you swore you'd use but didn't ... you get the picture. Round all of it up, and move it to the laundry room if you have one. If not, place it near your washing machine -- preferably in one basket or hamper. A mess that once seemed overwhelming has now been contained in one manageable area out of visitors' view, making it easier for you and your fellow family members to tackle later.
Oh -- and while you're busy creating the illusion of clean with your family, don't forget to stay tuned in to them. If Susie's asking you to take a look at her Christmas project, the dusting can wait. After all, the holidays are all about spending time with your little mess-makers. So while you're busy prioritizing the rooms of your house, prioritize some time with them, some time for yourself, and some time for your sanity. That's the secret to a truly happy holiday season.