Does anybody do spring cleaning anymore? I’m talking about the old-fashioned, strip-the-house-and-scrub-everything kind that my grandmother tortured the entire family with back in the thirties and forties.
Grandpa insisted that Grandma got a certain twinkle in her eye just before she announced spring cleaning. That’s why on this particular spring morning he woke me very early and said we were going fishing. While I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and struggled into my clothes, I heard Grandma and Grandpa talking in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear what they said, but a few minutes later Grandpa came into my bedroom and told me to go back to bed. We’d go fishing next week, he said. A few minutes later Grandma came in and told me to get dressed in a hurry. Today, she said, we’re doing spring cleaning.
For those of you who never went through an old-fashioned spring cleaning— or who have mercifully forgotten it— let me describe what that day was like.
It started with the fastest breakfast I ever had. Usually Grandpa would have a second cup of coffee and read the paper at breakfast. On this particular morning Grandma whisked the dishes off the table the second the last spoonful of cereal was in our mouths. Grandpa didn’t even get a first cup of coffee and definitely no paper.
Then Grandma began issuing orders. It was like being in the army. The first job was to take all the furniture out of the house and set it in the yard. The kitchen table and chairs went first, followed by everything in the living room. Then we emptied the bedrooms. Some of the heavier pieces of furniture, like china cabinets and dresser drawers, remained in the house but were moved into a corner. At some point during this exodus, my aunt and uncle showed up along with some cousins. Everybody pitched in. The men all shared the same look my Grandpa had. I guess they had planned to go fishing, too.
The living room and bedrooms had full-size rugs on the floors. These got rolled up and hauled into the backyard, where they were unrolled and hung over the clothesline. Then Grandma came out with a carpet beater and handed it to one of the cousins.
“Beat them until no dust comes out,” she said to all of us, giving fair notice the job would be too big for any one kid. It occurs to me now that I haven’t seen a carpet beater in years. The thing looked like a giant fly swatter except the swatter part was made of twisted steel so it sort of resembled the gate in a wrought iron fence. With each whack a cloud of dust billowed from the rug, choking us and covering us with grime.
While we were beating the rugs, the women were on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors with evil-smelling soap and water. Later they scrubbed the bed frames and all the woodwork in every room. The house smelled like an institution. A clean institution.
When dust finally stopped coming from the giant rugs and Grandma accepted them as clean, she hauled us into the house and issued our next assignment. Each of us received a handful of what looked like pink modeling clay with a sweet, pleasant smell. It was wallpaper cleaner. You shaped the stuff into a ball and then rolled it across the wall. It picked up the grime and left the wallpaper clean. The cleaner itself was jet black by the time we finished.
Windows were next, inside and out with strong ammonia water. Our eyes turned red and stung from the smell. But the windows were crystal clear when we were done. All the wooden furniture got scrubbed with soap and water and then had to be waxed and polished.
By nightfall everything was back in the house, and there was a cleanliness that you could feel. Literally, you could feel it. And that was because back then spring cleaning was not complete until each member of the household had swallowed a spoonful of tonic, artfully dispensed by Grandma. I don’t know what the stuff was, but it tasted like the very thing we’d been cleaning off the walls. It did its job quickly, and after several trips to the bathroom, we were as clean as the house.
Spring cleaning has changed since then. The big reason, of course, is that houses don’t get as dirty as they did back then. Our stoves and furnaces burned coal or wood in those days, and there were no filters to trap dirt. Today everything is electric or natural gas. Carpets are nailed down now, and modern carpet cleaning is as scientifically dedicated as cancer research. Window cleaners work better and actually smell good.
And best of all, nobody has come at me with a spoon and a bottle of spring tonic in years.