On a rainy June morning, the aroma of Murphy’s Oil Soap hovers in the humidity. Too wet to stain the decks, I tear apart beds; wash crown molding, air quilts and curtains. Fortunately, we washed windows during the dry spell. I savor this sense of accomplishment. Granted, I only have this urge once a year. I hear people discussing their gardens, the vegetables they nurture, the herb gardens propagated for cooking. Others go strawberry-picking, then make hordes of jam or freeze the berries for winter. I would scrub every floor in my house on my hands and knees rather than raise a garden. Really, I am one who keeps the commercial produce business going.
Fresh and Clean
For me, the spring-cleaning ritual always marked the transition from the school year to the carefree summer. Annually in June, I washed all the house curtains and hung them on the line. Paul and I would remove the vintage storm windows and hang the wooden screens. I emptied the mud room, wiped out all the winter gravel and debris. The sun-porch windows would be polished and fresh blue paint brushed on the ceiling, if needed. The porch furniture dusted and pots filled with flowers. Such obsessive housekeeping goes against every feminist conviction in my heart. Yet the drive to put everything in order, to have a fresh start, a clean slate, all goes back to genetics.
Scrub and Polish
I have been told that my great-grandmother, Dessie Mumma, used to sweep the street in front of her house. My mother once said that Grandma Mumma operated a fastidious and successful boarding house in Jeannette, PA. No wonder we all value washing and scrubbing. My memories go back as far as Nana, Dessie’s daughter, my maternal grandmother. I recall her impeccably-kept house, the shoes in her closet perfectly preserved with shoe stretchers, dresses on padded hangers, and sachets in her drawers. When her mobility declined due to Multiple-Sclerosis, she hired a cleaner to help.
As a widow, she resided in a small apartment, just as tidy as her house always had been. Occasionally, she would ask me to come and help polish her silverware, even though it was rarely used. I distinctly recall listening to her LPs of Broadway shows, South Pacific for one, and sipping tea from china cups while we polished. As a twelve-year-old I grudgingly participated. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those days back now.
In retrospect I can see that my mom moderated some of Nana’s standards. However, she strove to maintain a spotless house while becoming a working wife and mom. Her drawers had the sachets, perfectly folded clothes, often layered in tissue-paper. The closets, same padded hangers, garment bags, and dresses draped in dry-cleaning plastic. Shoe-boxes, stacked and properly labeled on upper shelves. When my mom cleaned the kitchen floor, she moved out every table and chair. I played train on the row of chairs. Every throw rug was given a violent shaking. She wiped the entire floor on her knees using a bucket of Spic and Span powder in water; I never saw a sponge mop in the house. I can still picture the bottle of Life-o-Wood, her preferred furniture polish.
In those days wrinkle-free fabrics did not exist. So I became an ironing apprentice on handkerchiefs, plain white or floral scalloped. Hand-embroidered dresser scarves and pillowcases also served as pressing practice. Once the simpler shapes were mastered, I pressed my dad’s white under-shirts. At last, the bag of dampened clothes, retrieved from the refrigerator, would serve as the final assessment of ironing skill. Collars and shoulders first, next sleeves and cuffs, then the front and back, carefully around the buttons. My dad still irons his jeans with a sharp crease. I gave up ironing pillow cases and sheets once I married. But every Sunday morning I would press Paul’s dress shirts and slacks, my blouses and skirts, for the following work week. Once retired, I resigned from ironing. Before we moved, I banished the ironing board to Goodwill.
In the final decade of her life my mom finally gave up the ghost admitting, “In Florida I just clean the condo with a Kleenex.” Really, she should have patented that before the Swiffer people did. Rosy Lesh, a friend and former school colleague, said the secret to housekeeping was to stay away on fun adventures during daylight hours. Then, keep the lights dim at night so the dust can’t be seen. During some super busy years, I did hire various cleaners to come in a few hours every month. That would see me through until I could deep clean all crevices in June. Now, expected guests motivate me to scrub and polish.
Quite a few years back, I received word that unexpected visitors would arrive for a few days. I happened to be out of town, but Paul assured me he would clean the house up to my expectations. When I arrived home to greet the guests the house smelled distinctly of Liquid Gold. I relaxed and gave Paul kudos for the spiffy house. About a year later he admitted he sprayed the oily polish generously into the air of every room, not on any actual furniture.
The family gene pool has emerged in random examples with the next generation. Recently, my niece Stevie recounted that she was in the process of training her fiancé to fold towels properly. That would be: fold the towel one third lengthwise. Fold the other side about three-fourths of the way over the third. Fold the towel in half, then again by half. Tami’s younger daughter, Holly, learned to fold clothes working at J. Crew. Ever since, her drawers rival my mom’s and my grandmother’s. Reed obsesses over his white-tiled kitchen which shows every dog hair shed from his black Labrador, Wiley. I learned that alleles cause an inherited trait to be expressed in varied ways. That would explain Reed’s wall of musky lures arranged perfectly by color, size, and brand.
My sister Tami and I spent our adult lives trying to live up to the family standard. We have always called it the Suzy Buckley School of Homemaking. As working-women, wives, and parents, we often fell short. Yet, we persist in measuring our worth as women to some degree by the cleanliness of our homes. Thankfully, we have modern products, husbands who help, and so many other ways to affirm our value.
2 thoughts on “Housekeeping Heritage”
Truly enjoyed this and laughed out loud at Paul’s antics. I have always been grateful for my mother’s teachings on cleaning although I’m afraid I am now a tough critic when others clean my house. I remember that before I could go downtown on Saturday to Mac’s (the local teen hangout) my chores had to pass inspection. I was often called back to clean the corners of the kitchen floor. Hands and knees were how I cleaned floors for many years after I married. My mother taught us that when you moved out of a house or apartment, you left if spotless. Of course, you also had to clean the house or apartment you were moving into which my sister and I felt was quite unfair. When life was overwhelming and I felt out of control, I would clean. THAT I could control and the sense of accomplishment was balm for a troubled soul. And there was nothing like lying down at night bone tired….I call it “a good tired”.
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I never knew you had to do the chores before Mac’s! Your mom’s standards for moving out and moving in are in our blood as well. I didn’t quite pinpoint the deepest meaning in this, but you did…the sense of control.