It was shocking, if not surreal. The email was from a woman I'd never met and whose name I recognized only because a few months earlier, she'd mailed me a book she'd written.
The message announced that she and her family were planning a cross-country road trip to Disneyland and would just love to stay with us since (at the time) we lived nearby and oh, wouldn't that be so much fun. She gave a tentative date they would be arriving.
Everything I know about what not to do as a houseguest I learned from that experience, from the moment they drove up until the time they finally departed -- far too many days hence.
In the interest of full disclosure, because I have friends and relatives who read this column, be it known that all other houseguests we have ever hosted have been wonderful -- exemplary. Do not worry. This is not about you.
Invitation. It need not be engraved on parchment, but you do need some kind of indication that you are invited to be a guest in another's home. Do not send a cryptic message ("Looks like we will be in your area in a couple of weeks!") hoping that will wrangle an invitation. And for goodness' sake, don't just show up. That would forever designate you as either an interloper or a freeloader.
Specific dates. Nail down the dates of your visit, and then stick to them. Listen for subtle clues ("We'll be super busy toward the end of October.") that you may need to find other accommodations for half of your trip.
Respect their space. Arriving with 16 suitcases and enough toys, devices and equipment to keep the children entertained for weeks on end tends to appear like you'll be taking over the entire house. You're not staying in a hotel, so don't treat your hosts' home like one. A good rule of thumb: When you're not in your room, it should look like it did when you arrived.
Mind the children. Talk to your kids — before you travel — about manners, respect and being neat. Let them know you expect them to pick up their clothing and offer to help carry groceries or set the table.
Transportation. Make sure you have worked this out before your arrival. Do not expect that your hosts' vehicles are part of the deal. Rent a car, or figure out public transportation. Should your hosts offer use of a vehicle, return it clean, washed and with a full gas tank, regardless of how many miles you put on it or time you spent in it.
Tour guides. You can graciously invite your hosts to join you at Sea World, but don't expect that to happen. And don't assume they will have discount tickets for you. Or that they will watch the children while you go out for a few hours. Remember they are neither your babysitters nor your tour guides.
Leave a fragrance. Upon your departure, you and all who arrived with you want to make sure you leave behind a fragrance — not an odor. And I mean that literally and figuratively. Clean up after yourselves without being obnoxious. Don't assume you need to do all the laundry and clean the house before you leave. Just use your common sense. Leave a lovely parting gesture like a handwritten thank-you note and an appropriate gift (flowers are nice) to let your hosts know how much you enjoyed your stay.
I have a book in my library — one I cherish and read often, mostly because it is so entertaining, well-written and educational! Years ago, its author, Darlene Dennis, sent it to me. Honestly, if you have ever had houseguests or you assume you may in the future, you need to read "Host or Hostage? A Guide for Surviving House Guests." You'll laugh; you'll learn; and in the process, you'll become a gracious host.