Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Cleaning

I've had a lot of extra work lately, and have been remiss insofar as keeping this blog up to date.

Today, I want to talk about spring cleaning.

When I was a kid, most people used the first warm days of spring as an opportunity to clear their homes of clutter, clean their interior walls, clean rugs, wash and wax wooden floors, scrub the grout in the bathroom tile, clean woodwork, and donate surplus items to charity.  After the house was decluttered, cleaned and aired out, people would go to work in their gardens, putting in flowers and plants for summer vegetables. 

Before Easter, our urban neighborhood would be bustling with activity as people threw open their windows, washed curtains, and let the fresh air and sunlight have free run in their homes.  The dust and soot from winter fireplace usage was scrubbed from the walls near the hearth, and a fresh coat of paint was applied if needed.  Winter clothes were washed, hung out to dry in the sun, and put away until the next year.

Most people would drag their household rugs outside, throw them over the fence, and beat the deeply-embedded dirt out of them (although most people had vacuum cleaners, wall to wall carpet was not yet common in our city).  After the rugs had been beaten senseless, they were hosed down to remove any remaining dirt or grime, and lightly scrubbed with a brush and soap before being rinsed and allowed to dry in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, floors were waxed and polished.

By May, most people's homes sparkled.

As a child, I was in awe of our neighbors who, over a mere few weekends,  refreshed and detail-cleaned  their homes to welcome the springtime.     

My non-hoarding grandmother was also one of these people, and from her, I learned how these things were done.  I thought it was fun to beat great clouds of dust out of the rugs, to tuck scented soap in with the winter garments before wrapping them carefully in moth-resistant cotton sheets and packing them in the trunk until next winter.  I enjoyed helping Grandma wax the floors -- when the floors were clean and dry, she invited the grandkids over for a "waxing party." All you had to bring was a pair of old socks. She would mop Johnson's Wax onto the floors and the kids would "skate" around the rooms until the floors shone like mirrors.  Older kids would help with the details, like shining the floor inside the corners.  After the floors were waxed, she'd make cookies, popcorn and Kool-Aid in the kitchen.  

Another thing Grandma did every year was to go through her house, looking for things she could donate to charity, or things she hadn't used in a long time.  The latter would be boxed, and would go into the attic.  If, by the following spring, she hadn't needed to retrieve anything from it, that box (and others like it) would be donated to the Salvation Army.

It was a good system.  Although Grandma was far from wealthy, her house always sparkled. Everything was mended and well-maintained, there was no clutter, everything had its place, and everything went back to its place after use. 

Life was good at Grandma's house.

Not so much at our house.

Sometimes Dad and I made a game of seeing how much we could clean on Saturday afternoons,  when Mom and my aunt sometimes went grocery shopping together.  But we never managed to make much of a dent in the piles of "memories."  We had to shift the stuff around to clean the floors and walls, to wash the curtains and clean the baseboards.   What I remember most is the dust, and how amazed I was at the amount of dust that could accumulate from one year to the next.  

More importantly, I didn't understand why Mom kept some of the things she held onto for dear life: yellowed newspaper clippings from the wedding announcements of co-worker's children ... broken china figurines and novelty coffee cups which had been birthday or Christmas gifts from acquaintances ... cracked picture frames ... broken rosaries ... plastic Easter eggs ... old ribbons from birthdays and Christmas gifts.  You name it, it was there.  All precious somehow, yet all jumbled together in uncovered boxes, gathering dust.

I often wondered how it could be possible for a box of oddments to be treasure and trash at the same time.

If I picked up one of these boxes, and fished out a newspaper clipping, asked my mother "whose wedding announcement is this?".... well, I would get an answer along the lines of, "don't you remember Miss Patty's niece? Bridget?"

(For the benefit of readers outside of the Southern United States, all adults a child is acquainted with are referred to by "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss," followed by the first name.  It is a way of acknowledging familiarity, while at the same time reserving a certain degree of respect for one's elders).

If I looked puzzled, or shook my head and said "no," Mom would answer with, "I can't believe you don't remember Miss Patty's niece!   Her name was Bridget.  She babysat for you sometimes when you were two. She was a cute girl with red hair."

"No, Mom, I don't remember.  I was only two.  Why did you save her wedding announcement?"

"Well, for goodness sakes, she was your babysitter one summer!  I have to save that!  Don't you have one sentimental bone in your body?  You do remember Miss Patty, I hope?"

"Miss Patty .... oh, she lived down the street when I was little, but I don't remember much about her."

"Good Lord, how can you forget Miss Patty?  She used to sing for the church choir and she was in Little Theater and ...I just can't believe ..."   Mom would walk out of the room, mumbling and shaking her head in amazement that an eleven-year-old did not remember a temporary babysitter from nine years previously, or her babysitter's aunt, who used to live down the street.

One Saturday, when Dad and I were attempting some spring cleaning while Mom was out shopping with her sister, we broke a vase.  Not a valuable Victorian antique; not a priceless Chinese ginger jar.  Just a regular stoneware vase with a pretty design on it, which someone had given Grandma as a Christmas gift in the 1940s.  It sat atop a crowded bookcase, among dozens of other vases and figurines.

Dad turned around in the crowded living room with a mop handle in his hand.  The handle hit the vase.  I tried to catch it, and missed. The vase hit the wood floor and fractured into several pieces.

My Dad picked up the pieces, found his jar of epoxy, and together we carefully set to work reassembling it, all the while watching the clock for the hour of Mom's scheduled return.

We finished half an hour before Mom was due home.  We turned the vase carefully from side to side.  The cracks were not noticeable; they resembled the hairline "crazing" one often sees in pottery.  We set the vase back in its place, and settled down to listen to a baseball game on the kitchen radio.  I had a Coke.  Dad made us a snack, and opened a beer.

Not long afterward, we heard Mom come in, heard the keys jingle in the lock, heard footsteps ... and then she stopped.  Dad and I stared at each other.

She had seen it.  And she knew it was broken.

Had she noticed the cracks?  No.

It was turned the wrong way around.

The vase had a different design on each side.  We had set it back in position the wrong way.  And, in a quick glance around the living room as she walked in the door, out of all that apparent chaos, she had noticed that tiny detail.   And she had investigated.

She cried.  It was as though we had broken it on purpose.  A story poured out, about how that vase had been given to my grandmother by some friend or neighbor who used to be so kind, so very kind, so long ago, during the Depression, the neighbor who shared backyard gardening chores and the resulting produce with Grandma, the neighbor who once drove Grandma to the doctor when she sprained her ankle.

And we broke that nice lady's vase.

Sometimes it all seemed so pointless, even to try to help.

Do any of you have stories of cleaning attempts gone awry, or going unappreciated, as you were growing up?  I'd love it if you would care to share your own stories.

In the meantime, have a happy spring season, and enjoy cleaning your own homes.


  1. I don't do spring or fall cleaning. I clean year-round. I post everything on the calendar. I allow one event per month - to give me an entire month to complete it.

    However, it needs to make common sense. I clean windows in September, because I'll be inside more and I want to enjoy the view outside my windows. I clean closets in October, because the coats and boots are at the entryway and the closets are a little emptier.

  2. I never clean unless it's dirty...

  3. You are a great writer! Please post more. My parents are getting older and they have always been hoarders. The stories of someone who gave them this or that item in the 1970's or before are getting more and more frequent, and trying to our patience. I feel your frustration with your parents.

  4. I would try to sneakily clean when my mom was otherwise occupied. Never worked. She'd see the garbage bag full of trash and scream at me. The bag of trash would be saved from my "wastefulness" and "ungratefulness" and either would remain stowed away as a bag of (not)trash or would be sorted through by my mother, while she complained of how much extra work I made for her.

    I do NOT have good memories of cleaning! :)