Spring Cleaning

I’ve been throwing out unused and unwanted stuff, sweeping out corners and crunching brown recluses, painting, repairing, building new shelves and chests–or I should say, paying my son to do these last three–giving away what’s salvagable . . . all this the direct result of a recent and serious attack of spring cleaning fever, which includes gardening (more on that later) and head-clearing (maybe not so much more on that).

When I was a girl reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series (which I adored and devoured, just as I devoured all the Louisa May Alcott I could find), I knew how remote that world was from my own when I read the description of spring cleaning: the beating of rugs, boiling water to wash curtains and bedding, fresh straw (or goose feathers) stuffed into big pillow cases, scrubbing floors and pots, all day long, all done by Ma and the girls, while Jack the dog got underfoot or took the opportunity to chase groundhogs.

Well, such is the composite of many vignettes of cleaning in that 9-book series, shaken down in my memory. A quick online search will lead to many, many LIW links. But here is a brief excerpt of one account of fall (not spring) cleaning, from Little Town on the Prairie:

She [that would be Laura, our Jo-like heroine] had not realized how heavy a quilt is, to lift soaked and dripping from a tub, and to wring out, and to hang on a line. . . . It was amazing, too, how dirty they all got, while cleaning a house that had seemed quite clean. The harder they worked, the dirtier everything became.

The worst day of all was very hot. They had tugged and lugged the straw ticks outdoors, and emptied them and washed them, and when they were dry they had filled them with sweet fresh hay. They had got the bed springs off the bedsteads and leaned them against the walls, and Laura had jammed her finger. Now they were pulling the bedsteads apart.

Here’s my version: “She [that would be me] had not realized how difficult it was to spend several hours crouching while sorting through the dribs and drabs of toy parts, lego pieces, pen parts, stray plastic potatoes, mustaches, lips; dirty girl socks and partly chewed Barbie heels; a missing earring, marbles, Mardi Gras beads, matted grass and dust bunnies the size of fat toads, and so on and so on. It was amazing how sore her arms were and how the brightly colored mounds of thises and thats spread across the floor. In fact, the more junk she sorted, the more junk there was.

“By morning she had discovered seven new muscle regions, her already short nails were frayed and catching on her clothes, and a brown recluse had cleverly burrowed its chops into the tender flesh behind her knee. The good side of this seedy scene was that her leg was so sore that she couldn’t work for another week while it healed (thanks to antibiotics and steroids).”

I think of myself as a hard worker, but this research is getting a little intimidating. Check out this link, which shows “real” pioneer women cleaning, with ongoing references to Ma, Laura, Mary, and the rest of the Ingalls family:

Finally, here’s what the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes site says about cleaning:

Washing the clothes was probably the hardest chore of the week. First, bucket after bucket of water had to be brought in from the spring or the well to fill a big iron pot on the cook stove. A large supply of wood had to be chopped and ready in the wood box to keep the fire going in the stove, because the water needed to be heated and kept boiling during the washing.

The white things would be washed first, then the colored things, so that the dyes in the colored clothes would not spoil the white ones. The clothes were scrubbed by hand on a ribbed scrubbing board in the washtub with strong homemade soap. After the clothes were scrubbed, they were boiled for about half an hour and stirred constantly with a long stick. They were then lifted out of the hot, soapy water with the stick into another tub, and the water was squeezed out. When all the clothes were washed, the wash water was dumped outside. More buckets of fresh water were hauled into heat on the stove for rinsing the clothes.
When all the clothes were rinsed and wrung out, they were hung up to dry. In summer, they could be hung outside in the sun and fresh air, but in winter, they would have to be hung inside the house, perhaps in the attic or lean-to.

So back to my starting point, which had something to do with the notion that spring cleaning, while a pain in the neck, back, arms, legs, is a wonderful example of effort well-spent. The house is cleaner! The junk is goner! May we dwell in domestic clarity and peace.

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