"So easy is it, though many housekeepers doubt it, to establish new and better customs in the place of the old. You need not rest your reputation on the dinners you give. For my own part, I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man's house, by any kind of Cerberus whatever, as by the parade one made about dining me, which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never to trouble him so again." Thus wrote Thoreau in Walden, in an essay titled "Visitors."
It is a paragraph worth cutting out and pasting on the refrigerator as the season for spring visitors speeds on into summer. Try to do too much for your guests and you will wish them in Halifax, or wherever it is they came from to add their lives to yours. And all but the most insensitive visitor will realize that the person in the kitchen grinding teeth while grinding grain for freshly baked bread is not really sincere in protesting that it's no trouble at all.
So many of the chores we take on when house guests arrive have nothing to do with increasing the comfort of the visitor. They have to do with showing off our houses or our gardens or our larders. Do guests really sleep better just because, the entire week before their arrival, you stayed up until midnight repapering the guest room?
It is nice when friends admire our houses; it is nice when they are taken with the glory of the garden, and it is very nice indeed to be praised as a fabulous cook. But people feel more at home in your house when they are given a chance to participate -- isolate them in the living room while you race around the kitchen producing special effects and you have turned them from friends into customers.
If a call announcing the arrival of people you genuinely like makes you feel panicky and irritable, sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil. Make a list of all the things you think you will need to do. Now throw the list away. If the grass is too long, perhaps your house guest will mow it. If, in order to bake your own bread, you must stay up until dawn, buy it.
If you like people enough to put a roof over their heads, they should like you well enough to overlook the fact that it leaks. Those who abandon the role of finicky hostess, reap another benefit. The more a house guest helps around the house, the less beholden the house guest will feel.
Although good manners calls for the guest to make a gift to the host, good sense is needed to keep the guest from overdoing it. How many cutting boards can one house hold? A guest who has helped around the house, who has planted a bush (and perhaps even bought it), who has mowed the lawn or mended a gutter, who has taken host and hostess out to dinner, has discharged the obligation of guest. And the hostess is spared the necessity of finding house space for yet one more platter decorated with ceramic fish, that ubiquitous specialty of the gift shop down the road.
(One hostess, up to her highboy in locally made pottery, began recycling them, passing on the last guest's gift to the next visitor. Upon being shown the guest room, the newly arrived visitor would discover a tissue wrapped package on the pillow. Inside was a piece of the local pottery and a note explaining that it was being offered as a memento of their stay. It not only got rid of her overstock, but effectively stopped the new guests from racing out to buy more.)
Just as the wise hostess learns to place more value on providing a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere than on putting up a perfect facade, the wise guest learns that the best house gifts are those that do not last. Flowers, scented soaps, wines, special foods like caviar or smoked salmon (things that will not elbow their way into the middle of a meal, upsetting the hostess's plans), theater tickets or dinner in a restaurant all will be more welcome than things that must be hung on a wall, stuck on a shelf, or pushed into a kitchen drawer. Some guests present their host with a book, one full of lush pictures of some perfect place, or perhaps a collection of classic short stories -- Sherlock Holmes, P.G. Wodehouse -- knowing full well that though they have fulfilled their duty as guests, when they return for a future visit, they will find the book exactly where they hoped it would be, on the bedside table in the guest room.