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A clean break from the past.

My children have been home for the holidays, the first time in a year that we have all been in the same place for longer than a three- or four-day weekend.

It's been wonderful to see them. We've talked, had lots of meals (both at the kitchen table and grazing) bickered a little, and easily negotiated the use of the cars, the television and the shower.

They might disagree, but despite the occasional skirmish, I think we do pretty well navigating life as four adults.

However, during this visit, it has become clear that there has been a "Freaky Friday'' kind of switcheroo, a subtle and unsettling swap within the cast of the family.

For years, my daughter has reliably played the role of The Messy One. Whenever she changed clothes, garments slid off her body and remained in puddles of fabric throughout the house. Colonies of single socks lived under her bed.

She was so constitutionally unable to organize a desk drawer that any one of hers might contain random collections of headbands, old term papers and Halloween candy.

It went without saying that she trailed detritus in her wake, leaving cabinets open, yogurt containers half-eaten in the refrigerator, clean laundry mixed with dirty.

In contrast, as the mother, for years I played the role of the Enforcer of Order. Together with my husband, who is by nature far neater and more organized than I am, I spent much of my active parenting years nagging, cajoling, howling at and sometimes cleaning up after messy children.

The planets realigned last summer.

In early June, our 21-year-old daughter moved into an apartment with her best friends and became The Tidy One.

Suddenly, it was she who was washing dishes, straightening up and taking out the garbage.

Her phone calls and texts home were filled with martyred references to her hard work.

Whenever there was a party, she recycled the beer cans and scrubbed the floor. No one else cooked. She was always wiping down the counters from someone else's breakfast.

Needless to say, her father and I watched all of this from afar with a certain satisfaction and the (more than) occasional snort.

At the same time, though, I had finally lost my increasingly precarious grip on the pedestal of neatness. Without children in the house to monitor, I had returned to my natural state of being -- total disarray.

My discarded clothes were often piled on the window seat in our bedroom for days before I put them away. My office was an overflow of papers and books and notes. I seemed unable to follow through on any kind of cooking project, though I regularly assembled all of the ingredients and left them on the kitchen counters.

Unable to deal with confronting me about the growing turmoil, my husband frantically folded every piece of clothing he could find and took to lecturing the dog about leaving his toys strewn all over the floor.

Then, right before Christmas, our daughter came home.

I was away with a college friend the first weekend, and I returned to discover that her bedroom was now spotless.

She had spent two days sorting and throwing out until the floor was bare, the drawers organized and the closet virtually empty. There were six bags of clothing ready to donate.

This should have been a huge heads up, but it took me until I walked into the kitchen with groceries to understand that the tectonic plates had actually shifted.

"I'll put those away,'' she said. "You'll just mess up the refrigerator -- I reorganized it and I don't want to have to do it again.''

"OK,'' I said warily.

"And the spice cabinet is a disaster,'' she continued. "I'm going to have to deal with that, too.''

She sighed. "I already rearranged the canned food and took care of that mess under the sink. How do you people even live like this?''

I carefully put the grocery bags down on the counter and went in search of my husband.

"Who is that in the kitchen?'' I hissed.

He grinned. "Isn't this great? The possibilities are endless!''

"What do you mean?''

"I think she's headed for your office next.''

I ran.

Laura Porter's Dispatches From the Home Front column is published on the first Sunday of the month.
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Title Annotation:Living
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 4, 2015
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