They never owned a car and they didn’t drive, so someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to my third birthday celebration.
For most occasions and on nearly every weekend, we were the ones who traveled the thirty-five miles to their home, a modest frame house in one of Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken here I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot, my only image of this improbable couple sitting next to one another.
Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.
Loving and attentive to his wife and family, Grandpa still preferred time in his workshop to household routines.
His shop fascinated me. Along one edge of the work bench, chisels and awls marched in perfect formation, arranged from tallest to least. Secured to a wall, saws, axes and adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work. A small cubby held tacks, nails and screws in assorted tins, and a small cigar box containing a scattering of nickels and pennies sat by the unlocked door, next to a pack of cigarettes and matches.
In those days of penny candy, the contents of the cigar box represented a fortune to a child. When I asked – very casually and with studied disinterest – whom the money belonged to, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke. Decades later, I realized the truth. The “friends” he spoke of were men riding the rails, men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, and perhaps even a cigarette – men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.
While the men busied themselves in the back yard, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking. Sometimes, they gathered in the kitchen for pie-baking or putting up preserves.
While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread or wandered off to indulge myself in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with treasure-laden shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, Grandma’s pantry was a marvel.
On the right, jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples and luscious bread-and-butter pickles shimmered in the dim light.
To the left, saltines and gingersnaps snuggled up against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums – pie plates, pitchers and baking dishes – shared shelf space with store-bought cookies (almond windmills, iced oatmeal) and homemade pies. A footed cake plate with an aluminum cover sat next to my favorite kitchen tool – a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that served as reward for any child patient enough to whip the cream.
There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, bags of salt for cod and ice cream. Because the rule for the house was the rule for the pantry – children could look, but not touch – we spent hours looking, just as we looked at each of our Grandmother’s wonders: her collection of porcelain figurines in the living room, the colored glass bottles lining the kitchen windows, rickety shelves of canned peaches and bins of potatoes in the root cellar.
But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stand around in a pantry was a child with time to help out, especially with cleaning.
Dish-washing, dusting and sweeping were part of our daily routine and didn’t qualify as cleaning. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. Grandma could clean with the best of them when she put her mind to it, but she often had other, more interesting things on her mind. Still, when the spirit moved her and she declared “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.
Spring and autumn were dedicated to window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to air the house, passers-by could get a whiff of the latest project – fresh lavender for the drawers, Spic-N-Span for the linoleum, lemon oil for furniture and vinegar for glass.
In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and the first days of the New Year, Grandma set aside her dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.
While Grandpa fled the house and neighbors gave her a wide berth, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house, seeking the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.
She was by nature a saver, frugal and self-sufficient, but she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d forgotten we had something, someone else should receive it. If we no longer used an item, its usefulness should be extended to another home. If we no longer knew the source of some little knick-knack no one enjoyed, we should pass it on to someone who would find it a delight.
Of course her definitions of “useful” and “necessary” were remarkably elastic. Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the Wars, greeting cards from grandchildren and postcards from friends in the “old country” were to be saved forever. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens and fabric scraps could be transformed into quilts or rugs. A roaster used once a year stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.
But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of potlucks? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.
In the end, very little was thrown away and very little more was given away, but Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.
Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when Grandma did battle with her clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often suggested I help.
We spent hours working together – shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. No matter how tedious the labor, no matter how frustrating the hours I spent working rather than playing, when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.
And that, I suppose, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible.
As New Year’s Day draws closer, memories of my grandmother and her routine begin to overtake me.
For years those memories have caused me to do my own digging through closets and drawers – looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might suddenly step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.
This year, with so much sorting and digging and dispersing behind me, household clutter isn’t an issue. But the impulse remains, and so I find myself pondering a new question. Why not approach life itself as my Grandmother approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless and the unwanted have broader application?
Intrigued by the notion, I begin looking around my mental premises. Reaching back into the cabinets of my mind, I open drawers filled with a lifetime of preconceptions. Piles of prejudices mouldering in the back of the closet looked as though they might stand a good sorting out. I pull a few passions and interests from under the bed, rearrange the stacks of leftover convictions on their shelves and even check to see what might be hiding in that little stash of irrationalities and neuroses.
Broadening my view, I see tendrils of laziness beginning to choke out projects I’ve left potted on the windowsill. My little carpet of accomplishment, neatly rolled out across the floor, is littered with bits of anxiety and frustration. A light film of anger clings to one window, dimming the light, and a grudge or two I’d meant to throw out still are there, waiting to be tripped over.
Standing in the midst of my adult years, looking at my life with my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. The New Year is coming. It’s time to clean house.