I clean houses. I don't work for a service; I clean on my own. I have for five years.

Many a time someone I have worked for calls me to ask where something is. They always find it. I guess what I am getting at is that a lot of people misplace things, and when they do find them, do you think they even say "I'm sorry"?

Most people who clean other people's homes for a living can't afford to steal. It would cost them their jobs.

GENTLE READER - Miss Manners will be your best ally in fiercely challenging any employer who slurs your honor by hinting that you may have stolen something that is missing. The impulse to blame someone else for one's own lapses is rampant, but decency forbids it.

However, Miss Manners would also like to point out to you that "misplacing things" is not necessarily a euphemism. Lots of people do misplace things. (Time out while Miss Manners finds her glasses, so she can continue this.)

Asking help from a house cleaner - who would have been going over the house quite thoroughly - is not an unreasonable idea. What a person who asks then owes you is not an apology but an expression of thanks.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - On a home answering machine, is it necessary to include an apology? For example, would it be acceptable to say: "Hello. We are unable to answer the phone at this time; however, you may wish to leave a message"? For office use, must one do anything other than state one's name and indicate that a message may be left? e.g.: "This is . . . . Please leave a message."

Now that most people are familiar with these devices, it would seem polite to subject the caller to as brief a message as possible. (We will not even discuss the indignities involved in having to wait through a message that not only is long but also is an ill-fated attempt at humor.)

GENTLE READER - Miss Manners is all for telephone brevity, especially at the expense of wit. How grateful she is that you understand that answering machines should never be used to audition comedy routines.

It is true that everyone now knows to wait for the beep before attempting to leave a message on a machine. So let us agree that the instructions may be omitted.

But Miss Manners does not grudge the two seconds it takes to be polite. A simple "We are sorry," before the part about not being able to answer the phone now, doesn't take long.

Note that this is coming from someone who has been telling you for years that there is nothing impolite about not taking calls - that on the contrary, it is impolite to expect people to be always on call to everyone.

Nevertheless, one should be delicately regretful that anyone else was inconvenienced by one's own - legitimate - convenience.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - My parents divorced after almost 30 years of marriage, and my father remarried. My mother handled this pretty gracefully, and everyone has been on good terms for the 10 years since.

However, my father died a few days ago, and my mother was not mentioned in the obituary or during the service.

I realize that mention of a former spouse would be awkward, but I am sure it was painful for my mother to be ignored for her part in his life. Is this mention strictly forbidden, or is there a socially acceptable way to extend formal condolences to a grieving ex-wife or ex-husband, especially during the funeral service?

GENTLE READER - Although society recognizes only one spouse at a time, and a gentleman has therefore only one widow, Miss Manners would not say that etiquette has gone so far as to forbid the mention of a former wife at a funeral service or to bar her from receiving condolences. And obituaries usually do run through the deceased's marital history.

To the best of Miss Manners' knowledge, etiquette simply hasn't dealt with the question you mention, because there was little call for it. The grief of ex-spouses is apt to be complicated at best, and is considered secondary to that of current spouses.

However, if you actually have a case in which it is positively known that the widow would not be hurt by a reference in the eulogy to the deceased's years with his first wife, etiquette will not step in and object.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - I received a lovely bouquet of flowers for St. Valentine's Day, but unfortunately, the accompanying card was not signed.

As I was unable to determine the identity of the sender from the content of the message, I can't convey my appreciation. I cannot call every male friend and ask if he sent me flowers, without causing everyone concerned (including me) great embarrassment. But being unable to acknowledge such a thoughtful gift has me frustrated. What am I to do before the flowers (and possibly the friendship) wilt?

GENTLE READER - Frustrated? You ought to be blooming. While Miss Manners commends your thwarted desire to show your appreciation in a direct fashion by writing a letter of thanks to the sender of these flowers, she wishes to point out that you can, instead, show your appreciation to all possible candidates. A saucy look and a secretive smile might ferret out the right gentleman and will not compromise you with the others. You may even find, next Valentine's Day, that your problem has multiplied.

1991 United Feature Syndicate Inc.