The perfect hostess has the perfect house. Before guests even walk through the door, they are greeted by an immaculate garden, a path swept free from leaves, and a gleaming polished letter box. On entering the house, the eyes are bathed in a warm glow from the sparkling floors, windows are invisible, everything has a place and is in it, children are perfectly behaved, and the scent which assails the nostrils is a combination of fresh flowers, newly baked bread, coffee, and just the faintest hint of furniture polish. Soft soothing music plays, children are perfectly behaved and sitting reading books (or banished to bedrooms or school). The guest bedrooms have been made up with newly laundered and ironed bedding, the guest bathroom is spotless, with a stack of neatly folded towels chosen to match the decor.
Oh stop, stop. You get the idea.
I am not a perfect hostess. My front garden is a mess. My letter box is rusty. My doorbell is broken, and works only at random intervals (I would replace it, but it's the third one to have that problem; I think it's me rather than the bell!).
My house frequently smells of air freshener or of whatever the air freshener is failing to mask. My floors are covered with small but lethal bits of children's toys. My children are extremely unlikely to be sitting reading, far more likely to have pulled seven different boxes of toys out and stirred them together with a large stick, in the twenty seconds I left the room to answer the dodgy doorbell. Or the seven boxes of toys they've been playing with all morning.
I have no guest bedroom or guest bathroom. Sleeping arrangements vary with the guest. Some sleep on put-u-ups in the sitting room or playroom, some take my bedroom and I move in with one of the girls, some take the girls rooms and they move in with me. It all depends what suits us best at the time. The bathroom is clean, but not perfect. The towels will be whatever is clean; I have a motley assortment. Bedding will be clean, but may be sleeping bags, depending on the number and ages of the guests.
My flowers are past their best, but not yet at the stage where they need to be replaced. I have baked biscuits and a chocolate cake; I have also bought various yummy things. I would not feel bad if all the food had been bought and not made.
My hall is messy. Cluttered, and messy. I can't open the cupboard door any more (Little Fish drove into it in her powerchair), so I can't hide the coats, the takeaway menus, the bits of post and the spare telephone.
But you know what? People haven't come to see the house, they've come to see me. Come to visit us. A local friend admitted last week that I was one of the few people she was genuinely pleased to have turn up on her doorstep. Why? Because she and I both have real houses. We have children who are as likely to be tantruming and whinging as they are to be wonderfully behaved and delightfully stimulating conversation. We both know that lunch may not have been cleared away completely several hours after the meal, and that children do collect stains and scuffs at the most inopportune moments. We both visit other friends, by appointment, and are greeted by the perfect hostess, the perfect house, the perfect children. It's intimidating. Where do these people keep their paperwork? What do they do with the newspapers until they get recycled? Where are the catalogues, the magazines, the books? Whereas we can drop in on each other, and know that we are likely to be greeted by a similar level of organised chaos as we have left in our own house. Other people's mess is so much more inviting than our own!
My cousin is an interior decorator, and cannot understand how our family can bear to have so many poorly matched books crammed into every conceivable cranny on each shelf in each room. My friend, my parents, and I , we understand the beauty of books, in and of themselves. This does not make us better people. It makes our houses appear cluttered and confused. It makes it hard to dust, it means that even if everything else in the house is for once in its own place and put away, the house will still look cosily messy, especially if viewed with the eyes of one trained on minimalist ideas with clean lines and clear surfaces.
I am not a perfect hostess. My cups are mismatched, my vases are chipped, my books are often tatty with torn covers. My laundry will almost certainly be hanging on the airer, my children will be involved in something messy, and if the floors are clear it will be because I have swept the worst of the clutter under the furniture. Under the furniture being the best possible place to keep most of Little Fish's toys - she can reach them from the floor and I can move them away again at the end of the day with a well aimed kick.
We have a saying in our house "nothing in this house matters more than the people". This doesn't mean I don't have any precious possessions; I do. I have a coffee set which was my great aunt's, some beautiful photographs and pictures, and other bits and pieces with perhaps no great material worth but of enormous value to me. But none of these are more important than the people - the people living here, and the people visiting here. You are free to drop things and spill things and crash into things, to break things and to stain things and to borrow things and lose things. When you are here, treat this house as your home. Relax.
And actually, I suspect that is the key to being, perhaps not the perfect hostess, but to providing hospitality. Come, share, enjoy. Sit, relax, chat. Leave Martha behind for a while and enjoy being a couple of Marys together.
I hope so anyway, because my guests are on their way, and I have spent time I could have spent taking fingerprints off the windows typing this.
Have a good day.