Why Are You Looking Up Here?

It took a few years for Uncle Tom to remodel his kitchen. Maybe it was only months (life moved more slowly when I was a kid), but every time we’d visit, there was a tarp hanging somewhere or an open bucket of paint on the floor. Toward the end of the project, the only part that remained in flux was a 3 ft. by 8 ft. space between the top of the Formica cabinets and the ceiling.

My uncle and aunt were unsure what color to paint it, so that space remained naked for months. After a while, in some late night creativity he was known for, Uncle Tom took a thick black marker and wrote on the plaster: “WHY ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE?”

In my house, that space would have been painted green or yellow an hour after the plaster dried. My parents were more, shall we say, sticklers for the details. I decided I wanted to grow up to be jaunty—like my uncle—to worry less about the way things looked. His house might be a mess (it was always a mess), but who cared when I had so much fun, sitting around the table playing board games with my cousin or helping my aunt make cookies.

By the time I married, had kids, and settled into our first home, I’d succeeded in only half of Uncle Tom’s legacy: I turned out to be a terrible housekeeper. But instead of adopting a C’est la vie attitude like his, I spent precious time wallowing in guilt. The disorganization, the dust balls that emerged from under furniture when the kids ran by, the constant sad state of the bathroom. I could pull plastic containers from the back of the refrigerator and even if there had been a cash prize waiting, could not have identified the contents. Uncle Tom would have giggled at this, maybe made it his opening salvo as company arrived. He might have created a contest for who could name what it used to be. Not me.

Worse than that, I became a first-class phony as soon as I knew company was coming. I’d begin to scrub everything in a days-long attack that bordered on a Silkwood shower for a house. Once this onslaught started, my kids would always chime in: “Who’s coming over?” I’d pretend it was mere coincidence that we were having a dinner party for eight and that I was arranging the cleaning supplies under the sink in alphabetical order.

They didn’t buy it, of course, but I just wasn’t able to let guests see the “real” us. I would think of my uncle often while vacuuming behind furniture or mopping the kitchen floor on my hands and knees hours before that doorbell rang. And as I wiped down every spice in my cabinet or went on a search for the last crumb in the living room, I’d ask myself Why? Would my company think less of me? Refuse to eat? Leave?

My memories of Uncle Tom’s house are the memories I want my guests to come away with. His home had a rosy glow, dust balls and all. No one ever looked for stains on the family room carpet. Or checked the bathroom for grime behind the toilet. I remember games of Spoons and laughing until I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember moments that defined a family. That’s the home I want.

Company is coming tomorrow. There’s something in the refrigerator I can’t identify. I’m not moving it.

One thought on “Why Are You Looking Up Here?

  1. This should be required reading for every person. I am in your Uncle’s camp, but my wife insists on the charade. Funny thing is, when you go to people’s homes and they’re spotless, you never feel completely relaxed. Like something’s missing. It’s only the “messy” homes that feel real.


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