Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.
Generally, we traveled to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations: a thirty-five mile trip to a modest frame house in one of south-central Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.
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 but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren, and I joined him as often as I could.
Along one edge of his work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work.
A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted tins, while close by the unlocked door, a small cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as packs 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 — if the money was his, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke.
Decades later, I realized the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, or perhaps even a cigarette; men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.
Grandpa, my dad, and the workshop ~ ready for company
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.
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 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 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 belonged to any child patient enough to whip the cream.There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, and bags of salt for preserving cod or making ice cream.
The rule for the house was the rule for the pantry. Children were to look, but not touch; we rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never picked up a figurine in the living room, or rearranged the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.
But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stare into 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 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, neighbors could track her progress by the scents: fresh lavender for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for 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 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 the existence of a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused items could become newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.
Of course her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic: akin to William Morris’s dictum that there should be nothing in our homes that we “do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens, and fabric scraps were saved and transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.
But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? 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 began her battle with clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.
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 each new year begins, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface.
For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of 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 already behind me because of my move, household clutter isn’t an issue. But freed from the need to sort through possessions, I find myself pondering a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?
Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities.
Some tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and those small grudges that litter our lives like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once we began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, it would take almost no effort to wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.
Standing at the end of one year and looking toward the start of another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.
Comments always are welcome.