Years ago, spring housecleaning used to be a backbreaking warm weather ritual. It involved hanging rugs out in the sunshine on clotheslines and then beating the dust out of them with a wire rug beater or a long-handled broom. It demanded that mattresses be carried out into the open air, placed on dining room chairs and left to soak up the sun’s rays, which surely helped to rid them of musty odors and pesky germs. Housewives attacked their cleaning in every nook and cranny with a vengeance. Curtains came down, were washed and stretched on a wooden frame surrounded by little, sharp nails which often pricked the fingers to the point of drawing blood. Windows were washed with vinegar and water then squeaked dry with wads of newspapers. Heavy furniture was moved so that one could clean behind and under it. Wads of “dust bunnies,” the accumulation from the winter months, were swept away. For those who had an upright piano, it was time to clean the ivory keys with a solution of baking soda and water and to inspect what might have fallen underneath the lid such as a pencil stub, a hair barrette, or a chicken bone.
Floors were cleaned by scrubbing or buffing and some received a generous coat of wax. Added to the mix, it wasn’t unusual to give some things around the house a fresh coat of paint and even to throw out some old stuff and replace it with new. It was a perfect opportunity to ransack drawers, shelves, closets and medicine cabinets for the purpose of throwing out the worn and outdated items. It was a time to discard, give away and rearrange. When housecleaning was going on, every room in the home smelled medicinal. That odor was equated with cleanliness. Before order could be restored, chaos reigned, it seemed. Children who were old enough and strong enough to help pitched in, while the little ones just got in the way. They crawled around underneath mattresses and were in constant danger of getting hurt or dirtying up something already cleaned.
Cedar chests yielded up their moth-balled sacred and secret contents for their once-a-year springtime scrutiny. At least that was true in my family. Sometime during the spring cleaning, my mother went through her cedar chest, which was in itself a treasure because it was her “hope chest,” a wedding present from her mother. The four of us children gathered around as her treasures were lifted out one by one onto the dining room table; a sailor suit, a pair of faded well-worn infant overalls, a pair of red wool bedroom slippers with a hole in the toe (which were my brothers), copies of family pictures in cardboard frames, a long braid of her own hair, her wedding suit, a hand-tooled leather pocketbook, our report cards and valentines, pillowcases edged with tatting and embroidery, a Japanese kimono and paper umbrella brought from Korea by our father many years ago, and taffeta-covered pink and blue baby books full of precious memories. As children, we were fascinated by our mother’s cedar chest and its contents and didn’t understand, then, why each thing, so lovingly lifted out and swathed in layers of tissue paper, brought tears to her eyes. Sadly, March 12, 1963, our home on Cumberland Avenue was flooded. Mother’s cedar chest was overturned in the muddy water. Its contents were hopelessly ruined; no amount of house cleaning, spring or otherwise, could ever repair or replace them.