- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

When I roll out of bed and put my feet on the floor, I already am running behind. Our dinner guests are coming in just 10 hours. Right away, I have to concede there will be no time to clean the garage.

It’s not that I didn’t get a jump on the preparations. Yesterday I had two children outside with me to pull weeds, putting in more than 12 man-hours to create the illusion that we maintain our landscaping on an ongoing basis.

I grab a cup of coffee and look out over the yard, realizing there is an entire section behind the house that looks abandoned. There are weeds that provide shade and a cool spot to read a book and sip lemonade. Come to think of it, maybe I should leave them there.

Thankfully, the weather is beautiful, which means we can host our dinner gathering on the patio. I send two children outside with instructions to fill up the wheelbarrow with all the plants that seem to be thriving. (That’s how I know the weeds from the actual shrubbery.)

It is “T minus eight hours,” and I can see we’re in trouble. The children pull just five weeds before discovering a bird’s nest with eggs in it. Attention diverted. Progress interrupted. Sigh.

It’s just 10 in the morning, but already I have worked myself into a pre-dinner-party frenzy of stress and panic. I’m not nervous about my role as hostess. Serving dinner is the easy part. Rather, I obsess about the condition of my house. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m only comfortable welcoming people into my home when I know it’s clean from top to bottom.

I worry that someone will open my refrigerator to refill a drink, only to find the multiple rings of chocolate sauce where a can of Hershey’s syrup used to sit. Worse, a guest could reach for the iced tea but find instead a plastic container filled with something that used to be pot roast, or maybe it was lasagna — hard to tell.

My guest might extrapolate that the food I’m serving tonight is tainted because the icebox in which it is stored also houses science specimens that formerly were leftovers. I can’t risk it. With just seven hours until our company comes, I empty the fridge and wipe it clean.

My weed crew takes a lunch break, which means the kitchen is a mess again. To keep myself from following them around the room with a mop, I make a trip to the grocery store for the items I need to make dinner for our guests. I have a list in my head, so I don’t bother to write it down. Naturally, without a written list, I forget to buy a bag of ice. (Must remember to tell my husband to buy one on his way home from work.)

By the time I get back from the store, I’m down to five hours of prep time. I conduct housekeeping triage. There’s no chance I’ll tackle every room and still have time to prepare the meal and bathe before our company comes, so instead I have to be selective.

I map out the path our friends will take from the front door, through the hallway and kitchen, and out the sliding door to the patio. This is the area that needs immediate attention. If I clean these few spaces first, plus the guest bathroom, they might assume the rest of my home is in a similar state.

Of course, if they happen to wander upstairs, they’ll learn otherwise. I start thinking of excuses to keep them from seeing the whole house. (Some people like to tour the homes of their friends.)

I could tell them there’s a dangerous loose stair that might give way. Maybe I even could put orange cones on the steps. We used to have some to mark a backyard soccer field, but the garage is a mess, so I can’t find them.

I make a mental note to stop by the police station for a roll of yellow “crime scene” tape. This would be a fitting way to mark my teenage daughters’ room, in any case.

The clock is ticking, but instead of showering, I run the vacuum while muttering “bag of ice, crime-scene tape, bag of ice, crime-scene tape.” Before I know it, I have just two hours left until our guests are due to arrive.

Entertaining might be less stressful if I weren’t so fussy about my house, but in truth, there’s probably more to it than just a desire to be perceived as hygienic. No matter whom we host in our home, I want people to know that their visits are special to me. It’s not about how our friends view us but about communicating how much we value them.

Somehow, when the doorbell rings, I am clean and dressed, a pork roast is in the oven, music is playing on the stereo, and even the weather has held up.

We sit on the patio with our friends, enjoying a spectacular summer evening. Nobody notices the weeds my children missed while examining sparrow eggs — we’re all too focused on great conversation and a good meal.

The best part? No one has bothered to look in the garage.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. [email protected]comcast.net.

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