Column: Trauma of house-cleaning ritual still haunts fall months

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 25, 2003

Show me a woman who’s re-discovered Phyllis Whitney and indulged in a Phyllis Whitney binge and I’ll show you a woman who has no decent regard for fall housecleaning. Here I sit in my blue room, a room that’s always a challenge and, at the moment, threatens to cave in on me as their overloaded apartment did on those two old brothers years ago.

My response to this? I reach for still another romantic-suspense novel. There must be one. Fall house cleaning? Faugh! What doth it profit a woman if she spends the whole beautiful season sorting papers and loses her chance to read an exciting, if predictable, novel.

My blue room is an upstairs room where my computer lives. As I write this I can look out over a flat place in the roof where a squirrel is engaged in pondering a green-coated walnut from one of our trees. Squirrel and I have much in common. He is in no mood to tuck his walnut away for winter, but is planning to eat it now. I am in no mood to start straightening my blue room. I think I have two Whitney books to go. Maybe they have others at the library.

Email newsletter signup

I wonder if women still engage in fall house cleaning. Fall and spring house cleaning were big events in my childhood. I think it was because of the stoves. I was nine years old before my family installed central heating. Our one-story house had only five rooms, but they were large rooms. In the winter all five rooms were heated by two stoves. The one in the kitchen always reminded me of a ballet dancer. It was graceful and petite. The base burner in the living room was beautiful, but matronly.

Both stoves, when in use, sat on square metallic mats. The kitchen stove was a constant threat to our white cat with the two-colored eyes. The cat enjoyed the heat from the stove, but had a tendency to wave her tail against it. Burned, she would let loose with a maddened meow and make for a cooler spot. We tried to keep her away from the stove, even putting a box for her in its warmth. She was not to be persuaded and from mid-October until it faded sometime in summer, she always wore a scorch mark on her tail.

The disposal of the stoves was a large part of the fall and spring cleanings. In the spring, with newspapers down to catch any falling soot, the stovepipes were disconnected from the chimneys, taken apart, and removed to the yard for brushing and cleaning. Each stove was carried out, thoroughly cleaned and covered with some sort of grease to prevent rusting. Stovepipes and stove were stored in the barn, carefully covered with heavy canvas until fall should again make them needed.

During the summer months, the holes in the chimneys were plugged with little plate-like stoppers, banded in tin of a color to look like shining brass. Each stopper had a picture in the middle, usually a rural scene with a brook, some lambs and a great deal of green grass and trees. Metal clasps on the inside of the chimney-plug unfolded to hold the plates in place.

While the returning of the stoves, after they had been well-polished, was a large part of preparing the house for winter, there was much more. Curtains had to be washed and the heavy draperies that had been folded away during the summer, taken out and aired. Windows, of course, had to be washed, along with the storm windows, and screens mended, painted and stored until summer.

Generally speaking, in my part of Nebraska, winter was seldom as cold and never as long as in Minnesota. Despite having only two stoves to heat five rooms, I don’t remember ever having suffered from cold.

I suffered from the house cleanings, though. They usually lasted five days or a week. They smelled like moth balls; everyone was in a bad mood and meals weren’t as good as they were in normal times.

In a family that has had its fair share of alcoholics, I suspect that I seek escape as they do, but through reading. It is not praiseworthy, but at least you can read a book without fearing that it may cause you to leap into your car and run over the neighbor’s dog.

One doesn’t like to make weak excuses, but my spring and fall passion for who-dunnits and suspense novels undoubtedly has its roots in my childhood trauma of all that house cleaning.

(Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.)