The holiday season is over. To the naked eye, the house is still in that calm, uncluttered state achieved only once a year by crisis house cleaners like me.
Just don't look in the den. Or the basement. Or the upstairs hall closet.
Reality is hiding there.
The house is out of joint, along with its permanent occupants, who were displaced with their possessions to make room for holiday temporaries.
"Where is my bathrobe?" shouts the man of the house for the 10th time since Aunt Edna vacated his room and returned to Wilkes-Barre. He thinks she took it. She's 5 feet 1 and shrinking; he's 6 feet 3.
"Have you looked in the hall closet?" I ask.
He ignores the suggestion. In there are the contents of other closets, night tables and bureau drawers unstraightened for years.
The den is crammed with boxes of Christmas decorations that belong in the basement, which is crammed with upstairs things moved downstairs to make room for Christmas decorations and the tree.
That bag of once-missing groceries is in the den, too, put there when I ran out of space in the kitchen. (Does anyone know what to do with a half-gallon of eggnog ice cream that's been unrefrigerated for over two weeks? Or the designer blouse soaking in it?)
Where is the turquoise ring I took off when I rolled out the gingerbread men? I remember opening a drawer -- or was it a cabinet door? -- and putting it inside for safekeeping.
That's not all that's missing in this holiday upheaval. I've lost a life's accumulation of medicine and grooming articles, in addition to most of the contents of my pantry. In the worst timing since the Bay of Pigs, my visiting children viewed the house with a new perspective and conducted a search-and-destroy mission on every floor. Two days before Christmas.
"Look at this -- a can of oxblood shoe polish," said my son as he examined the items on the linen closet rack. "I bet the last oxblood shoes in this house wore out before 1960. And they were never polished." He dropped the can into the trash.
"And this is the same Musco Rubbing Oil you used on me when I had leg cramps. When I was 6 years old, Mom!" It joined the shoe polish.
He held up a bottle of cough syrup marked 19 cents. "Nothing has cost 19 cents for the past 20 years. And it's empty."
Antihistamine tablets formerly white with confetti dots now turned all glowing pink were tossed, as was a prescription salve for insect bites dated 6/27/80, and a bottle of nail polish solid as a rock.
Leaving him to his evil doings, I went downstairs to the kitchen where my daughter was going through the pantry, with similar intent. "Smell this curry powder," she challenged me. The webby yellow stuff beneath the rusty top could have been sawdust. There was no aroma. "This is no good. It must have been on the shelf forever."
"If you come across the spatula, let me know," I said, trying to distract her.
The ruse didn't work. "Yecccch," she cried, as she poured a bottle of light corn syrup into the sink, gray mold and all. "I remember this corn syrup from when I was a kid. You've never used it since."
"I might, someday," I answered. Too late. It was gurgling down the drain.
As she was reading "Use before September 1983" from a sealed package of mozzarella cheese retrieved from the back of the refrigerator, I got a call from the basement. The man of the house, reeking of self-righteousness, wanted to show me how far he had gotten in moving many years of accumulated junk from the shelves to the middle of the basement floor, in preparation for sorting it and throwing it out.
"Guess what's in these paint cans?" he asked, then answered immediately. "Congealed gunk. Eight cans with not more than an inch of congealed gunk in each of them."
"Guess what's in the living room?" I countered. "A bare Christmas tree waiting to be trimmed."
"I thought you'd be pleased that I was cleaning out the basement," he said, innocently. "You've been saying for a long time that you wished I'd do it."
Conceding defeat on all fronts, I returned to the kitchen in time to save the can of poultry seasoning from the trash. "I bought that less than a week ago," I lied.
I broke the cleaning spell by making a parental suggestion: "How about clearing your stuff that's been here since you moved out? It's now sitting in the middle of the basement and easily accessible."
"Let's trim the tree now," they answered. Now they are gone, but their stuff is still here, and so is the current stuff in the basement and the den and hall closet. But all that can wait.
Right now I'm luxuriating in a house that's temporarily and superficially free of clutter. As I quietly sit smelling the pine needles still imbedded in the carpet, I discover a great truth: Without clutter the house looks dead; without memories of people swarming all over the place, throwing out rubbing oil and curry powder and empty paint cans, there would be no joy in the present privacy; and without the crowded confusion of the holidays, the lovely post-holidays lull would be a dismal slump. Maybe the celebration is just beginning.
Now if I could just find the vacuum cleaner . . .