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Letter from Troy: Spring Cleansing

03/21/2019

By Jennifer Wixson

Letter from Troy: Spring Cleansing first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Spring 2019 

I’m not a highly motivated housekeeper, except in springtime. Nor do I pray very often. You wouldn’t think that these two acts were in any way connected, yet they are. 

In April, when streams and rivulets commence to cascade with snowmelt—and jaunty, translucent caps of ice form on steps of round-headed rocks—a concurrent thawing in my spirit occurs causing me to throw open the windows and doors and joyfully greet the sweetest and freshest of seasons. Even with three feet of snow on the ground, if the smelts are struggling upstream to spawn, out comes the wash pail. 

Most folks think spring cleaning is all about housework. It’s not. Those of us tied to the land and thus bound to the cycle of life understand that the ritual of spring cleansing is as much about the rebirth of the spirit as it is about the washing of walls and floors and mucking out the henhouse. We invite spring into our homes, barns, and outbuildings not only to cleanse the dust and effluvium of winter from our dwellings— and refresh the hen pen for the next set of pullets—but also to whitewash our weary and jaded souls bogged down with petty jealousies and selfish grievances, which come from being cooped up inside for the better part of six months. 

Winter in Maine is long and hard. We know this, but how quickly we forget! Thanks to the power of our annual resurrection, by May we are as forgetful of our winter thralldom as the mother of a newborn bairn who, the moment the child is placed in her arms, forgets the pain and agony of her labor and delivery. How otherwise could the human race continue? And how else could it be that we in Maine are able to greet the first snowfall in November with the excitement and affection of a long-lost friend? Such is the power of the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere and it is a well-known adage in Maine that the worse the winter, the more we appreciate spring. 

As previously mentioned, that wash pail is my go-to cleaning implement in spring. On the anointed day (I never know in advance when that day might be) I throw open the windows to allow in spring’s fresh scent as well as music to clean by—the duck-like quacking of the wood frogs accompanied by a chorus of spring peepers. After my husband vacuums the braided wool rugs and hardwood floors (ladies, he even sets the recliners and couch on their noses and moves all the chairs and end tables onto the large living room rug!), I fill my pail with hot soapy water and go to work. I drop to my hands and knees on the kitchen floor and lovingly scrub the burnished yellow wood flooring, which spreads like warm honey throughout our entire house. Well do I remember the year I helped my husband install our yellow birch floor, which I proudly point out to all who admire it (and many do) that the flooring was cut and manufactured in the  Pine Tree State and that it was installed by me with a bit of help from my husband. 

I pray so rarely now that when I do get down on my knees to scrub the floor, I often recollect with a full heart the nighttime prayers we children used to recite with our mother. We’d kneel beside our beds, little hands cupped in prayer, our innocent heads resting upon them. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” we’d faithfully chime, trusting in God and in the power of a mother’s love to protect us. Later, after Mom tucked us in and kissed us goodnight, Dad often stood at the bottom of the stairs crooning the hymn, Now the Day Is Over : 

Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
Jesus, give the weary
Calm and sweet repose;
With Thy tend’rest blessing
May mine eyelids close.

More often than not while washing the floor I also think of the colorful pair of goldframed nineteenth-century prints that hung in the kitchen of the old family homestead in Norway (and still hang there today). One of the prints shows a family in the grip of rage. An angry mother raises a straw hearth broom to her six- or seven-year-old barefoot son, whom she is holding by his right suspender strap as he attempts to elude her blows. Meanwhile, Father has kicked over a chair and is chasing, with a larger broom, a striped tiger cat who is obviously suspected of overturning a jug of cider on a clothed and set table—most likely spread for Sunday dinner. Another barefoot urchin, possibly the true author and instigator of the crime, peers into the room from around the doorframe, a satanic, gleeful smile on his face as he watches the mayhem. 

As strange as I found the first print, the second was even more unusual. In this scene  the same characters appear, only now they are prostrate under the influence of a powerful and weighty humility. Mother is prone across one chair, clutching the guilty child, now on his knees in repentance—with the abused and beaten sibling generously reaching out to assist both of them. Father, also on his knees, sags against the seat of his chair, beseeching God for mercy. 

When in my twenties I inquired about these two prints, my grandmother told me they had belonged to her grandmother, whose second husband was a Universalist minister. She believed the prints were titled “Before and After Prayers,” but didn’t know which one was “Before Prayers” and which one was “After Prayers.” “What do you think?” she asked me. I examined the prints closely and, thanks to the effects of a recent humbling, was pretty sure that the “After Prayers” print was the one in which the family was down on their knees. 

When I am down on my knees in the throes of spring cleaning I always think of my mother, who firmly believed that the proper way to wash a floor was on your hands and knees. (In fact, I’m not sure Mother ever owned a mop.) One spring when I was about thirteen, I undertook to learn the discipline of housecleaning—not by choice, I might add. Mother sloshed a pail of hot soapy suds in front of me one afternoon as I was chowing down several of her warm chocolate-chip cookies not long after the school bus had dropped us off. She held out a scrub brush and sponge and said, “When you’re done with your snack, I’d like you to wash the kitchen floor.” 

“Me? I don’t know how,” I whined, trying to put her off. Mother came from good Maine stock, however, and rarely took any bull. 

“Don’t give me that baloney, Jennifer! You’ve seen me wash this floor often enough. You know what to do.” 

Mom didn’t mean to guilt me, but nevertheless I did feel guilty. Over the years I had watched my hardworking parent—mother of four young children—slave away to feed, clothe (she sewed all of our clothes), clean, cook, and work for the entire family 365 days a year, with nary a day off. Yet she never complained. Having chastised myself, I swallowed my cookie, gulped down my glass of milk, and dropped to my knees to begin scrubbing the kitchen floor. Lo and behold! On that day I learned the satisfaction that is won from a job well done, which has been one of the greatest gifts my mother ever gave me. 

Mother died in the spring of 2017 and that Christmas she received a holiday card from an old University of Maine roommate, Sally, who obviously hadn’t heard of Mom’s passing. It fell to me to write to inform Sally of the sad news. In January I received a grateful note in reply. Sally told me that she had many happy memories of the time she and Mom were both at the Elms (a UMO dorm), especially the year they were roommates. “She comes to my mind often when I am washing a floor,” Sally continued. “Once when I was washing our dorm room floor with a mop your mother came in and suggested the only way to wash a floor was on your hands and knees. I’ve done it that way ever since—and enjoy thinking of her when I do!” 

Hot tears flooded my eyes as I read Sally’s words. I dropped to my knees—and prayed. 

Jennifer Wixson writes from her home in Troy, where she keeps bees, raises Scottish Highland cattle, and grows cranberries. She is also the author of The Sovereign Series, novels set in rural Maine.