House Guests: Feast or Famine

On how it seems to be everyone or no one when it comes to guests.

Mike and I moved to Arizona about eight years ago now and moved into our current house about nine months later. Both of our families still live back east — in New York, New Jersey, and Florida (where old New Yorkers go). None of them could understand why we’d made the move out west. We told them about the improved quality of life and the reduced cost of living. We told them about having horses and chickens, about seeing billions of stars in clear skies almost every night, about warm weather in the winter time. But it wasn’t until they started coming out here to visit that they began to understand.

They’d come alone or in pairs at first. Mike and I worked out of the house so two of our three bedrooms were home offices. Mike’s was the easiest to convert to a spare bedroom, with a futon that flattened out to a queen sized bed. My office was too full of computer equipment and related junk to make a good guest room. (Sometimes I even had trouble with it as an office.) People would come and stay a few days. Occasionally, they’d stay longer. Mike’s mom stayed 10 days once.

We had a flood of house guests one Christmas. Mike’s entire family came: mother, brother, sister, niece. No one wanted to share the part-time guest room with Mike’s mom, so we wound up sticking people all over the house and elsewhere. Mike’s niece on the queen-sized sofa bed in the upstairs den. Mike’s brother on the living room sofa. Mike’s sister — well, she wanted her own room, so we stuck her in the Log Wagon Inn. She wasn’t very happy with that, either, but frankly I’m not sure if anything would have made her happy.

When we moved the offices out of the house, we fixed up the two bedrooms. One of them became a full-time guest room, with a full-sized bed, dresser, night table, chair, and tiny bookshelf. We even cleared out most of the closet so guests could hang their clothes. The other room became a library, with bookshelves, Mike’s old desk, and that futon. It didn’t take much to turn that into a guest room when we needed it.

Oddly enough, we had very few visitors for a long time. (I think we were all still trying to recover from Mike’s family’s visit.) Mike’s cousin Ricky, who, like us, discovered the benefits of going west, lives in Seattle and visited regularly almost every year. He goes to the Gem and Mineral show in Tucson every winter and we can usually convince him to come with us to Quartzsite for a few days. We also had a friend from back east stop in for a few days. He was the perfect house guest because we hardly ever saw him. He’d get up, join us for coffee in the morning, then take his rental car out for the day. He’d return after dinner, spend some time chatting with us, and hit the sack. No need for us to miss work, plan day trips, and fret over meals.

My dad came for a visit with his wife, too. They actually came twice in the same year. The first time, I think they had some plane tickets they had to use up and decided to use them to see us. My dad hardly ever flies — he prefers to drive everywhere — but even he wasn’t prepared to drive from Florida. They spent a few days with us, then moved on to Las Vegas to spend a few days with distant members of her family. The second time, they went to Las Vegas, then came back to spend a few days with us.

Family PhotoThis year, the flood returned. My brother and his wife had been wanting to visit for a long time. I suggested that they come for Thanksgiving. Somehow the idea came up that it would be nice to have the whole family out, including my sister, mother, and stepfather. My mother and stepfather live in Florida (not near my father; that would be too weird) and don’t get up north to see my sister and brother in New Jersey very often. I made a bet with my brother that if I invited my mother, she wouldn’t come. I lost the bet. And my sister came, too. So for five days, I had all five of them in the house. It was the first time we made full use of both guest rooms. My sister was a good sport and slept on the living room sofa.

Julia & MildredThe flood continued, two days after the last of that group departed, Mike’s mom and her friend arrived. That was yesterday and they’re staying for a week. They’re both in their eighties and they move slowly. Very slowly. They have trouble with the four steps that lead down to the two guest rooms. Coming upstairs to admire the view from our den and our new bedroom furniture was like taking them on a trip to the top of K2. Well, maybe not that bad.

So here it is, December 3, and we’ve had almost nonstop house guests since November 20. It’s difficult for me. I’m basically a loner and need a certain amount of time to myself. I normally get that in the morning. I wake up around 4:30 AM, go downstairs, make coffee, and make Alex the Bird his breakfast. I have until 5:45, when Mike comes down, to write blog entries, organize my day, and put things into perspective. But with house guests, when I wake up and go down, Alex’s whistles and chattering wakes up the house guests. In no time at all, they’re wandering into the kitchen, complaining about how early we wake up (and go to sleep), and needing coffee, food, entertainment. And asking questions.

It’s the questions that are the toughest for me. It seems like a nonstop barrage of questions. Questions about Alex, questions about what they see outside the window, questions about little noises the house makes. Questions about breakfast, plans for the day, the temperature outside. Questions about Alex and Jack and the horses and the chickens. Questions about the neighbor’s dogs and horses and kids. Questions about things around the house that aren’t common in houses back east, like the garbage disposal and compactor. Questions about what I’m doing and what they can do to help.

It’s this last question that really kills me. I work efficiently, accustomed to doing things on my own, with no one in my way. Suddenly there are offers to help me. But to get the help they’re offering, I have to help them. For example, imagine this exchange:

“Do you want me to set the table for dinner?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“Okay, where are the plates?”

I stop what I’m doing to open the cabinet.

A moment later: “And the silverware is in this drawer?” They open the wrong drawer.

“Next to that drawer.”

They open another wrong drawer.

I come over and open the right drawer.

“Oh. Which knives should I use?”

“I don’t care. Either one.”

A running narrative follows, concerning the pros and cons of steak knives over table knives, which are commonly known as butter knives in my family. I have to pay attention and make appropriate comments. I then have to verbally confirm that the table setter has made the correct choice, even though I just said I didn’t care which knives were selected.

“Do you have napkins?”

“The drawer under the silverware.”

“These are cloth napkins. Don’t you have paper?”

“Cloth is fine. We always use cloth.”

“But we don’t need cloth napkins. Don’t you have paper napkins?”

“Don’t you like cloth napkins?”

“Yeah, but we don’t use them at home.”

“Well we do. Use the cloth napkins.”

They put out the cloth napkins, commenting on how paper napkins are good enough for them and that it’s a lot of work to wash all those napkins. Then: “How about glasses? Where are they?”

“In the cabinet with the plates.”

“Oh, yeah.” They open the cabinet again. “Which ones should I use?”

“The big ones.”

“You mean the tall ones?””Yes, that’s fine.”

“There’s only six of them. There are seven of us. Are there any in the dishwasher?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, if there is, I can wash one. Then we’ll have enough.”

“You can use the short ones. There should be enough.”

“Well, it’s no bother to wash a glass if you have one in the dishwasher. Should I look?”

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

They attempt to open the dishwasher, but it’s latched. “I can’t get this open. How do you open it?”

Get the idea? Obviously, I’d rather not have help that requires so much help to get. And frankly, it bugs me that there needs to be so much conversation over what I think are trivial things. The cloth napkins are a perfect example. Almost every single house guest this year has made a big deal over my napkins. They aren’t anything special. They’re restaurant style cloth napkins that I throw into the laundry with the rest of my dirty wash and fold when they come out of the dryer. I don’t iron them, I don’t starch them. It takes only a few moments extra to deal with them and they’re so much nicer than paper. Why wouldn’t I use cloth napkins if I like them? Why make a big deal about them? Why ask so many questions?

I guess my stress level is beginning to show.

Anyway, Mike and I rate guests on their maintenance level. The less maintenance a guest requires, the more pleasant the guest is to have in the house. So far this year, my mother and stepfather have rated highest. We just stuck them in the guest room, showed them where the towels were, and let them do their thing. They made their own breakfast, went on their own day trips, and even set the table without asking questions. They got a high rating. My sister also rated pretty high, although she didn’t do much in the way of entertaining herself. My brother and his wife were down a bit on the scale. Too many questions! And I don’t think they would have done anything without someone taking the lead. And Mike’s mom and her friend will definitely rate very low. Mike’s mom has already asked more questions in three hours of waking time than my whole family combined. And we really can’t expect them to entertain themselves when they have so much trouble just walking around.

Ah, I hear my house guests stirring down below. Time to put up the decaf coffee and debate what’s for breakfast.

What do you think?