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Time to clean less, and live more

Each spring, soon after the arrival of the first robin, my mother was seized by an overwhelming compulsion to tidy the family nest. Spring cleaning was a ritual that had been closely observed by three generations of her family. From the time when her great grandmother, Mary Johnson Cross, industriously swept the dirt floor of her log cabin, at Fish Lake, to the reign of mother’s Hoover upright, a clean house was all-important.

At our home on The Commons (Hill Street) spring cleaning began upstairs. Bedroom walls and ceilings were swept down, curtains washed and floors cleaned. No corner of the room escaped mother’s scrutiny. The Swiss-dot muslin skirt of my dressing table, which was secured by an entire box of thumb tacks, was laboriously detached, washed, and hung out to dry.

When she had cleaned our three upstairs bedrooms, mother turned her attention to the bedroom windows. The original storm windows in our home had been replaced by aluminium windows. The glasses in the lower part of each one could be removed, easily, for cleaning. However, to clean the outside of the fixed, upper portion of the window, considerable ingenuity was required.

Mother would remove the lower sheet of glass in my bedroom window and, also, the window screen. Then, squeegee and bucket in hand, she would climb through the opening, onto the kitchen roof. Braced on its rather steep incline she would proceed to wash the upper half of the window.

After satisfying herself that the window was “squeaky clean”, mother would begin the challenging process of reassembling it. Invariably, this task proved more difficult than a Chinese puzzle. Determined not to admit defeat, mother experimented with various combinations of layering, until finally the window, sensing it had met its match, cried “Uncle”.

Preparatory to cleaning our bedroom closets, mother would carry their contents downstairs and hang them on the clothesline to air. Old handkerchiefs were filled with mothballs, then tied in small pouches to be hung with our clothing when it was taken from the clothesline.

Spring cleaning of the downstairs was always a major undertaking that required up to two days, for each room. Mother repeated the process of sweeping down the walls and ceilings, then washed them. In the dining room, the entire contents of her china cabinet were carried out to our kitchen, to be washed and dried.

Drapes were taken down and aired, carpets vacuumed and doilies washed. Scatter mats were hung on the clothesline to air and toss cushions were beaten within an inch of their lives.

For mother, each year, spring cleaning symbolized a new beginning. In keeping with this philosophy, she moved the furniture in our downstairs rooms, every April. With the tenacity of a pitbull, she dragged heavy furniture pieces from one location to another and rearranged our chairs to create new seating arrangements. Our piano, by virtue of its size, was the only piece of furniture allowed to spread roots.

When mother had finished cleaning the upstairs and downstairs of the house, she turned her attention to our cellar. A trap door that had been cut in the dining room floor led down a flight of wooden steps to the cellar. A set of wooden shelves lined one cellar wall and it was here that mother stored her preserves.

She tidied each shelf, searched diligently for cobwebs, then dragged a garden house into the cellar to wash down its stone floor. When this chore had been completed, spring cleaning was officially over.

As my mother grew older, standard spring cleaning practices were modified somewhat. Certain rituals were cast aside, among them the necessity of washing every cup and saucer in the china cabinet. Mother decided upon a pleasing furniture arrangement and the annual migration of the sofa, the buffet, and numerous side tables no longer took place.

One fine spring day, much to my surprise, I was successful in convincing her to put down her sponge mop and join me for a walk. As she untied her apron, she commented that she had decided to adopt a more relaxed approach to spring cleaning. By way of explanation, she noted that my grandmother had just told her that her family physician (the late Dr. Sam Hart) had chided her for working too hard. He said that there were plenty of good housekeepers in Glenwood. The time had come for mother and her mother before her to clean less and live more.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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