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A Different Perspective On House Dirt

WHENEVER I sort laundry, I remember the incredulous look on my mother's face the first time she sat with me while I matched socks not long after Gary and I were married.

We were together in the bedroom -- two married women, companionable equals -- until I stuffed one gray sock, wrong-side out, inside a blue one, also wrong-side out, and put it in Gary's drawer.

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''Don't you turn them right-side out first?'' Mom cried, eyes wide. She didn't even mention the difference in colors. That was so far beyond the pale it didn't merit comment.

My husband is a tug-boat captain. Haberdashery is not a high priority. Even now, Gary often wears two socks that are not remotely similar, so whether they are right- or wrong-side out is the least of my concerns.

''They'll probably be right-side out next time they come through. If it matters to him, he can turn it,'' I explained, finishing the pile.

Although she looked a little dazed by my cavalier attitude, she nodded thoughtfully at the logic. ''I never thought of it like that.''

Mom was a housekeeper's housekeeper. Things were always clean and always in place. For her, an ordered house was equivalent to an ordered life. Or perhaps neatness was an attempt at controlling her surroundings in the chaos (or excitement, depending on your point of view) of life with my father.

''I can't think when the house is a mess,'' she would explain.

But, although she needed order, she appreciated creativity. One winter, Dad built a sailing dinghy in our small living room. The garage was unheated, so the epoxy glue -- for which temperature was critical -- wouldn't set. Building the boat in the house was the logical solution.

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If Mom objected, I never heard about it. She understood the difference between maintenance and production. I remember friends climbing over the massive shell of the boat to flop into one of the chairs shoved up against the walls. Guests ate off plates balanced on the dinghy's bottom. All winter, the house smelled of sawed wood and epoxy resin. Every morning, Mom vacuumed up the sawdust. The act of producing something always commanded her respect, even if the process was messy.

It wasn't that Mom loved to clean -- just that she liked her home a certain way. And she had patience for keeping house. She assumed I would grow into an understanding of the necessity by example.

In my early teens, however, she began to suspect that I didn't have housekeeping inclinations. Methodically, she began to encourage neatness and personal responsibility for my surroundings. But she was too good at the job she had been doing all those years. To my uncritical eye, she cleaned where there was no dirt. I never saw the imperative. I could step over projects spread over the floor for days as long as I could find my shoes.

Since harmony at home was even more important to her than order, she never forced the issue. If she took my indifference to housekeeping as a personal failure, she never let on. Instead, she praised my abilities -- encouraged them by letting me try wallpapering for the first time on the downstairs bathroom. I went on to paint all the woodwork and eventually every room in the house instead of doing laundry.

At times, a criticism slipped out -- her resolve to understand our differences was imperfect, but her determination to encourage and support her children was not.

It's not that I don't like a clean, neat home; I do, very much. But organized chaos seems about all I can manage on a regular basis and still do the things I love along with the things I must.

Only lately have I begun to wonder what sort of example I am setting for my children. And I find, as I grow older, I cannot think clearly in chaos. As I try to orchestrate our crowded days, I better appreciate Mom's need for order. I want the convenience of finding what I need when I need it. Ordered clutter is what I aim for now.

I live very differently from my mother. Here in the country, chores are not only character-builders but also vital necessities. Outbuildings demand maintenance. Planting, harvesting, and canning require helping hands. I can't do it all alone. My children must clean. Yet I cannot bring myself to hold them to a higher standard for neatness than I meet myself. Although I can empathize with Mom now, my standards are still not hers.

It's a great temptation to try to force our children to be like us. It's an impossibility, but a temptation nonetheless. It takes understanding and faith to appreciate the differences instead, to let them become strengths in their own right.

Although I never had the slightest urge to walk in her footsteps, I admired Mom. Not for her order, but for the courage it took to be one way and let her children be another. Her tolerance did not always come easily, but even when I could see she was working at it, I loved her for the effort.

Six months after she watched me sort socks all those years ago, she phoned.

''I've stopped turning the socks right- side out,'' she said. ''You're right. It doesn't matter.''

Growth can take many forms. She passed on before we could meet somewhere in the middle. She'd be please to know I'm finally beginning to cultivate an inclination for housekeeping.

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