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January 29, 2019
Notta and Spring Cleaning
“Is it spring yet?” Notta asked. She stomped slush from her boots at the front office mat.
“I thought you liked winter,” I said. My fax to the PA Dept of Ed. slithered through our fax machine. There are indeed days I expect to put in a document, beep and boop buttons for the sendee’s fax number, and see a snake hiss its way out of the machine.
“I do,” she said. “Not so much the driving with all those dodos that can’t drive in rain, let alone ice and snow – sometimes I think there ought to be a law that you can’t get a driver’s license if you can’t drive safely on ice or snow. Renewals? Same thing. Build a track full of year-round winter conditions and make everybody pass a test on that. Of course, I think people should have to pass a test and get a license to have children. Or pets.” She shook snow off her knitted beanie. “Other than that, I love the beauty and quiet of snow.”
“So why wish for spring?”
“Well, it’s not so much a wish for spring as, when you’re stuck inside so much as we are in winter, you start to notice things.”
Notta had her coat off now. She followed me back to my long and narrow office, where the coat hooks were on the back of my office door. “You know, the smudgy fingerprints on the kitchen cabinets near the handles. The cobwebs in the corners of that room you never go in unless you have no place else to put something. The dings and marks on the walls where somebody got in a rush or was plain clumsy. That ‘Fibber McGee’1 closet you keep saying you’re going to clean out one of these days.” She found the reading packets for today’s class.
I assembled our teacher’s copies, pencils and notebooks. “So?”
“So I’m making a Spring Cleaning list and it’s getting longer every week. At this rate, I’ll be cleaning from March 21st to June 21st and it will look like nothing has been done.”
“Isn’t that the way with all cleaning?” I asked. We made our laden ways out to the conference room.
“I suppose,” she said. “But, if it was spring, I could get at it and start knocking that list down a bit.”
“Why can’t you start on it now?” I asked.
She snorted. “Because it’s spring cleaning! You can’t do Spring Cleaning in winter!”
Our Early Bird and two more cherubs came in complaining of the cold. The Early Bird laughed and told us about a driver who slid and fish-tailed all the way down main street. Notta gave me an “I told you so” look, but only whispered, “Licenses.”
“Procrastinator,” I whispered back. Notta humphed and found her place at the other end of the table. “How many of you – or your mothers – do spring cleaning when the weather gets warmer?”
“You mean it gets warmer?” the young man said with a grin.
“My mom and her wife always do,” our Early Bird said. “They have a list about a mile long.”
“And do they wait until March 21st to start it?” I asked.
She shook her head no. “They wait for Easter Vacation and my brother and me help.”
I swallowed the urge to say, “My brother and I,” and asked, “But that’s spring, right?”
“Spring and, then, in the fall, we have to do a lot of the stuff again and some other stuff.” She looked at Notta and then at me. “So why do people do spring and fall cleaning? How did all that get started?”
I looked at Notta. She looked at me. I sighed. “I honestly don’t know, but I can guess.”
“Oh, do guess,” Notta said. Again, I swallowed an urge – the one to snake my tongue at her.
“I suspect, back in the proverbial day, when people didn’t have electricity or central heat – “
“Or indoor plumbing,” said another student coming in for class.
I nodded. “That, too. Anyway, they were at the mercy of the weather and the seasons. There were simply things you could do during the spring, summer and fall, and things you couldn’t in winter. So they developed customs and systems that followed the rhythms of the year: spring was for clearing out what had built up or broken down over the winter and then planting; summer, tending crops and animals, and beginning the harvest and storage work; fall, harvest and putting up food, then preparing for winter and maybe the next spring; winter –“
“Eating all that food they put up and trying to not freeze to death,” Notta said.
I laughed a little, so the students laughed, too. “I suppose so.”
“And somewhere in there, having all those babies they made trying to keep warm in winter,” the Early Bird said. More laughter, and a few reddened cheeks.
“That, too,” I said. “And that makes even more cleaning work, year-round.”
“Yeah, because they didn’t have disposable diapers!”
I knew where this was going, as did a few of the other students who looked to me to steer them away from yet another scatological discussion. “So anyway, I am guessing that practice followed people from the farming life into the city. City-dwellers found their lives a little less tethered to the land, but the seasons were the same. They found other things that needed to be done.”
“My mom always takes our blankets out and shakes them outside in the spring,” the young man said.
“Mine washes all the curtains and linens and hangs them out on a line,” a young lady commented. “Pisses our neighbors off something awful. I told her to hang out our underwear just to get them back.”
“All that’s easier and probably healthier when it’s warm enough to open windows and doors,” I said. “Therefore, we have spring cleaning. Things and areas we think about clearing out to start our outdoor lives again. Then, in the fall, you have to get things ready for winter, for shorter days, less time outside and all the ‘fun’ of having people indoors almost all the time.”
“My parents used to make us go out and play in the snow for hours,” another student commented.
“Because they knew you had a warm house to come back into.”
“And hot water heaters and washing machines,” said the Early Bird.
“Folks even as recently as eighty-five years ago didn’t,” I said. “You wanted heat in the winter, you chopped and hauled wood. You want hot water, you heat a bucket of melting snow on a woodstove. You wanted clean clothes, you might have to reuse that water a few times for clothes and you. I’ve heard stories of some folks not bathing from September to March because of the cold.” That won me a series of “Ewwws” and “Gross!” I shrugged. “That’s one of the side-effects of having all our machines and conveniences. We can pretty much get what we want or do what we want whenever we want. Winter? We can still wipe off smudgy fingerprints or clean out closets and donate to GoodWill or some other charity.
“We can, but some of us don’t, because we’re waiting for spring to do what we call our spring cleaning,” Notta said, eyeing me sourly.
“In rhythm with the seasons,” I said.
“’To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven,’2” Notta quoted.
“Yeah,” the Early Bird sighed. “Didn’t the Beatles write that?”