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.
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.