There are certain things that our parents teach us, that turn out to be true. My father often said, “You haven’t finished a job until you put away all the tools.” When I was young, I was convinced that was just his way of keeping me from being able to go and play with my friends. My parents would methodically put all of the equipment back in the garage and sweep the soil off the walkways after we finished weeding. Then they would step back and admire the weed-free planter boxes and newly planted annuals as I ran up the street to ride bikes with a friend.

“It’s easier to clean up as you go,” Mom would say as she scurried around the kitchen washing bowls and measuring cups, drying them and putting them away and then wiping down the counter. I didn’t buy it. I tried to convince her that whether you washed the dishes while the cake was still baking or after it had cooled and been iced and you had enjoyed the first slice, it would be exactly the same number of dishes. A delay in cleaning did not cause an additional accumulation of batter-covered cookware.

I was certain that I when I became an adult, I would abandon these words of questionable wisdom and live in the moment. I would clean later. But that didn’t happen. I pick up after myself. I pick up after other people. I hang up my towel after I shower. I put away my tools and I even wash the dishes while I make dinner. I don’t know why that happened. But I didn’t become the care-free slob I hoped I would become.

I visited a friend’s house this weekend. She and her husband seem to be losing the battle with a do-it-yourself kitchen remodel. For weeks, she had been complaining to me, “I can’t live like this. There is nowhere for me to even sit down.” I only partially sympathized assuming she was just being dramatic, until I saw her house. Every tool, every ladder, every wood scrap involved in the project seemed to be balanced against any bare spot of kitchen wall available. There were packets of screws and baskets of kitchen supplies, wooden spoons and whisks, hammers and saws and small appliances teetered on a stack of cardboard boxes. Her only counter space was about two square feet of plywood.

Walking around the cluttered space, I felt ill. I’m usually motivated to put things in order, but I didn’t even know where to begin. How did it get like this? I walked outside past the scrap wood and boxes of slate scraps where the grass was yellowing and dying under plastic tarp and overturned wheel barrow. How did this happen?

It happened gradually. Every day when they were done working, they must have just stopped. I am sure that it was easy to rationalize. “We’ll clean up when we’re done,” or, “It always looks worse before it gets better.” Maybe they were exhausted from working all day and then trying to assemble a kitchen in the afternoons and weekends. Likely the allure of their design-magazine inspired future kitchen kept them motivated and working for a while. Until it just became too much. The mess won.

I started to tidy up the only way I know how, one piece at a time. I tried to help gather like items together and made a small dent in the chaos. We put the tools all in one place and cleared a space for food preparation.

All the while I kept thinking how the small choices we make every day matter. The little things that are so easy to neglect accumulate and grow if you let them. You wash the same number of dishes while dinner is in the oven as you do after the last guest goes home. But it’s a lot more pleasant to say goodnight to the last guest, enjoy your last sips of wine and slip happily into bed than it is wash an evening’s worth or cookware.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: