by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Curiously, I’ve never thanked my mother for cleanliness. But I should. And I do.
Here comes the spring of the year. Here comes an air so laden and loamy, breezes so sweet I want to weep. Here comes some of the purest colors of the earth: jonquils of unsullied yellow, the rouge of the redbud like the red breath of the forest itself, the white of the petaled dogwood like explosions of pillows. Here comes that scent after thunderstorm that is so like the warm, clean scent of wind-dried bedsheets against my cheek.
It stormed last night. For several hours there was a full cannonade of thunder and the heavy rain—and then the air had a dark, sparkling quality in my nostrils. Intoxicating. The night streets shined. All the earth was washed. Today the soil is shrugging toward rebirth.
And all this reminds me of my mother.
One particular gift of hers to us was cleanliness. The experience of cleanliness, of becoming clean. We took it for granted; but it was a way of life, maternal virtue and holy consolation.
My mother kept cleaning, kept reclaiming territory by the act of cleaning it, kept redeeming her children therein.
And spring was always that fresh start of the faith and the hope in cleanliness, of the forgiveness of cleanliness, actually, since everything old and fusty could be eliminated, allowing the new to take its place-or better yet, the old itself could be the new again.
My, my, I haven’t realized till now—sinking into a thoughtful old age-how dearly I loved spring cleaning.
Mom was happy, cleaning. She sang the winter away. She cracked old closures. Everything grievous and wrong and knotty and gritty and guilty was gone. Life returned, and sunlight and laughter and air.
She was a priest. This was her sacramental ritual. We children would wake in the early morning to a sudden bluster of wind through the house. Mom had thrown open all the windows upstairs and down, front and back, living room and our own bedrooms. The curtains blew in and clapped above us: Get up! Get up! This is the Day of Atonement!
We stumbled up to find that Mom had propped the front door open and the back door and the basement. We sailed through windy hallways.
Mother herself never paused the day long. She bound her hair in a bandanna blue with white polka dots; she wore weird pants called “pedal-pushers” and rubber gloves and a man’s shirt and red canvas shoes with rubber soles: silent, swift, and terrible was she!
Rugs came up and were hung on lines outside for beatings. Her right arm got victories that day. Rugs coughed dark clouds into the yard, and then the hardwood floors were waxed with such power to such a marvelous shine that we, in sock-feet, slipped the surface, surfing. Clean is a feeling beneath your feet.
The curtains came down to be washed. The naked windows squeaked under Windex and newspaper. Mom’s dust rag made the Venetian blinds clatter and complain. Bright light flooded the rooms. They seemed to inhale, these rooms, and so to enlarge themselves. Our house was growing. The furniture had to be moved back. In the huge, gleaming living room our voices echoed. Lo, we were new creatures, laughing with a louder sound and singing a sweeter treble than before.
Out with the old, then! Out with the bad. My mother was a purging white storm, focused and furious. Out with the sullen, germ-infested air, colds and flus and fevers. In with the spring! In with lily breezes!
In buckets Mom made elixirs of Spic and Span. She shook Old Dutch Cleanser on sinks as if it were a stick to scold. Throughout the house went ammonia smells, pine smells, soap smells, sudsy smells that canceled sweats and miasmas.
Winter clothes were washed and packed away. Summer wear appeared. Our very bodies lightened, brightened, beamed in newness and health.
I loved to be in my mother’s house on such spring days.
Dresser drawers got new paper linings.
The closet hung straight and true.
By evening we ourselves were bathed, the dust of the day removed, leaving a creamy me.
And this, finally, was the finest comfort of the sacred day: that when I went to bed that night, I slipped my silver self between clean sheets. Sheets sun-dried and wind-softened and smoother to my tender flesh than four white petals of the dogwood tree. Delicious above me and below, blessing me and holding me at once: my mother’s cleanliness. Such a sweet fastness of sheets declared the boy between them to be royalty for sure, chosen, holy, and beloved-the son of a wonderful queen.
Understand: the blessing embraced more than the house. The whole world seemed ordered and good in that day. My mother’s feats of cleanliness persuaded me of universal kindness. I liked the world in which I dwelt, and I assumed it liked me, and I trusted it therefore.
Well, she sang when she cleaned. Her eyes flashed gladness. She had a plan, and she never doubted that she would accomplish it. Morning to night, I knew exactly where she was because her presence was a music, like birdsong, like the laughter of water.
What then? Why, then for me my mother was the springtime. She inaugurated it. She embodied it. She gave it her own peculiar and personal character. When she swept her right arm up, the firmament was made balmy-and blue, and winter was over.
Never, never should children take so cosmic a gift for granted. “Cosmic,” I say, because it defines our world for a while, and it teaches us whether to meet the real world hereafter with confidence and glad anticipation—or else with fears, anxieties, suspicions. We children inhabit twice the worlds our mothers make for us: first when that world is no wider than a house, a yard, a neighborhood, and then again when that world is the wide world—because her smaller world teaches us how to see and interpret the real world when we shall travel into it.
My mother made my infant world a clean, well-lighted place. Now, therefore, in spite of wretched evidence to the contrary, I continue to trust in the ultimate purity of God’s universe.
My mother taught me the goodness of order and brightness. Now, therefore, I seek order in friendships and offer a bright unvarnished truth in return.
My mother assured me annually that newness has a right and a reality, that error can be forgiven, that the sinner can be reclaimed. In springtime she surrounded me with the immediate, primal light of God. Now, therefore, I trust renewal. Resurrection. Easter!
Surely, then, it is time to thank her.
With all my heart, Virginia, I thank you for the theology of your spring cleaning, the vernal sacrament. And how often, while we sat at worship in church, didn’t you cock an eye at some smudge on my face? And how often didn’t you spit on your handkerchief and with that most private cleanser, your personal scent, wipe the smudge away? Well, for that too, thank you.
I am washed within and without. I am myself the gift that you have given me, and all the world is the wrapping.