My high-school friend Cathy had a very clever mother. Mrs. Watt designed a system for doing an inst-tidy on the house in the event of unexpected guests that she called the "red alert." If Mrs. Watt hung up the telephone right after saying, "Oh, it will just be so lovely to see all of you!" depending on the state of the household at that moment, her next words, addressed to the family were "RED ALERT!"
This was the signal for everyone to hastily drop whatever they were doing and go to whatever station in the house had been assigned to them and start cleaning like they'd just heard that Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Pope were coming over to discuss the defeat on communism. (Yes, this was the 1980s.) I don't remember specifically what Mrs. Watt had everyone do, but I was reminded of the red alert when I was reading a magazine article titled "How to Get Your House Ready for Guests." I won't name the magazine because I generally like it very much, but this particular article was just all kinds of bogus.
First of all, the piece laid out plans for what to do if you had two hours to prepare, one half-hour to prepare and fifteen minutes to prepare and one of the suggestion for the half-hour scenario was "Wipe down the kitchen cabinets."
Huh? So I should wipe down the kitchen cabinets to impress my guests, but ignore the skillet with cooked-on scrambled eggs soaking in the sink? If unexpected guests are coming over to my place and I've got a bare thirty minutes to prepare for their arrival, wiping down the fronts of my cabinets is about the last thing on my list, coming right before "Wax the mailbox" and "Paint the house."
There were a few other boneheaded instructions, one of them being "Change the sheets on the guest room bed." Now, listen to me. I've been keeping house since I was twenty-two years old, for five years as a single lady and twenty as a wife, and never once in all that time have I had an unanticipated overnight guest. I don't know: maybe word has gotten around about the comfort level of the mattress on that bed. But anyway, of all the overnight guests we've had, I knew about them enough in advance to change the sheets well before the two-hours-til-arrival stage. I might not wipe down the fronts of my kitchen cabinets more than a couple times a year, but I know what's what when it comes to having a freshly-sheeted bed ready for guests, and I bet you do too.
So I made my own list. Here it is:
FOR GUESTS ARRIVING IN 15 MINUTES:
If your house has that lived-in look ours invariably gets -- magazines and newspapers and books flung higgledy-piggledy on every available horizontal surface, a few dishes in the sink, crumbs on the counter, offensive globs of toothpaste clinging to the interior surface of the bathroom sinks, a light layer of dust, an empty toilet paper spindle on the holder -- here's my advice in one simple step:
1. Go to the shed out back and retrieve the can of gasoline you have stashed there - you can tell the fire chief later that it was meant for the lawn mower -- and after all family members and pets are safely out of your home, douse the downstairs in gas and set the place ablaze. When your inconsiderate guests arrive, they'll find you weeping and wringing your hands on the sidewalk in front of your residence, and be forced to take you to the Olive Garden for a sympathy meal. Because we all know that, unless your family consists of fourteen Navy Seals, there's no way the place is going to be presentable to guests who have the temerity to give you only fifteen minutes' notice of their arrival.
You can sort everything out with your insurance agent later, at a time when you're expecting no company.
FOR GUESTS ARRIVING IN HALF AN HOUR:
1. Grab a laundry basket and tear through the house, picking up clutter and tossing it in. Don't forget your desk. Put the laundry basket in the laundry room and SHUT THE DOOR FIRMLY. Put a gun in the waistband of your pants at the small of your back so that you can sweetly threaten to shoot any non-immediate family member who tries to go in there. Dead guests tell no tales.
Dirty dishes in the sink? My advice is to obtain RIGHT NOW one of those Rubbermaid plastic dishpans. Use it to stack dirty dishes in. Carry it to the laundry room, put it on the washer or wherever. If you want to, cover it up with a dish towel. Shut the laundry room door.
2. Grab the duster - I have ones made of that lamb fluff because I think they work the best - and give it a spritz with Endust, which is a miracle product equaled only by the Swiffer line of housekeeping products. At a brisk pace, go through the downstairs and run that duster over all tables, the fireplace mantel, the piano, the bookshelves.
3. Light some scented candles. Because that's what they're for, after all: to remove your funky family smell. Did you think they were designed to create a homey ambiance in your home? Well, that too, but trust me: Yankee can cover up a multitude of stinkiness.
4. Fluff up the sofa cushions and throw pillows. Either neatly re-fold any sloppy-looking throw blankets or take them back to the laundry room and dump them in the basket.
5. Go to the classical music channel on your cable and turn on something erudite yet soothing. It will make you seem cultured and unflappable. Who would ever dream that the same woman who has Mozart or Debussy playing ebulliently through the speakers is the same woman who, mere moments before, was galloping around her house shrieking, "PICK UP THOSE SHOES RIGHT NOW OR YOU ARE DEAD!"
6. Go to the guest bathroom. Put out a fresh hand towel. Empty the wastebasket. Get that container of disinfectant wipes out and wipe down the toilet and the sink. Get out a Windex wipe and go over the mirror, any under-glass artwork on the walls and the faucets. The back of the toilet tank is a dust-magnet: wipe it down too. Note that when you have to do something fast, those containers of wipes are a fabulous thing to have on hand. Got a nice candle for the bathroom? Light it.
7. If you can manage it, run the vacuum in the living room and entry way if you have carpet. If you have "hardwoods," as the House Hunters so often say, get out your Swiffer dust mop, attach one of those cling-sheet thingies to it and go over the floors fast.
8. Don't forget yourself. Take a look at your hair, your top, the state of your makeup. Do whatever you can do as quickly as you can do it.
9. Because it bears repeating: DO NOT LET ANYONE IN THE LAUNDRY ROOM.
Naturally, all this will go faster if you have family members to pitch in and help, but I have proved that these things can be accomplished by one woman in one half hour, and I even managed to look moderately sane when the doorbell rang.
FOR GUESTS ARRIVING IN AN HOUR:
1. Do everything on the above list, except at a slightly slower pace.
2. If you haven't made your bed, go make it. Unless your bedroom is upstairs, in which case, keep everyone on the first floor.
3. Here's a new thing I just learned: Keep some of these cute little hors d'oeuvres from Nancy's on hand in the freezer. They are delish and so easy: Just pop them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. I try to have a couple of bottles of white wine available ( always Barefoot, always chardonnay or Moscato ) for my drinking friends and some two-liter bottles of Sprite and Sprite Zero for the teetotalers. That always seems a little classier than plunking a can of Coke down on a coaster beside a visitor. You will look like some kind of Martha Stewart whiz-kid, and it won't be any trouble at all.
4. Still don't let anyone in that laundry room. Keep that gun ready.
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