March 11, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Clearing away the clutter during Lent

Part of the Jewish preparation for Passover is a thorough cleaning of the house. My mom wasn’t Jewish, but she too believed in a thorough cleaning of the house in preparation for Easter, and springtime in general. I am my mother’s daughter.

Or at least, I used to be. Those were the days when Ash Wednesday heralded major penitence for my kids, not only because it was Lent. Mostly, it was because it meant spring-cleaning time when their stuff would be relentlessly exposed, washed, edited, thrown out or otherwise ruined in their opinion.

Not only that, they were required to take part in this disastrous affair. They had to sort socks, clean desk drawers, dust knickknacks, empty the toy box mostly into the garbage and stand ready for the next chore. Cheerfully. As a Lenten penance, it was more effective than giving up candy.

For an entire week, everyone would stay outside until dark, allowed in only for thrown-together meals eaten in the midst of stacked furniture and rolled-up rugs. Every window, floor, wall, closet, drawer, linen or surface in the house underwent some version of scouring, vaccuming or washing.

However, a few years have passed and spring-cleaning is no longer on my agenda. The kids would be thankful, but they’ve gone on to their own homes where such an event may or may not occur. Today, clutter is a way of life, never to be changed until someone else takes over this ranch.

Once in a while, I attempt to clean out a drawer, mainly so that I can shut it properly. Recently, I found a cache of old Life magazines I’d saved because they contained reports of historic events, including the assigning of the original seven U.S. astronauts and the American Bicentennial in 1976.

There was a 40-year anniversary issue of The Saturday Review of Literature featuring articles about forgotten authors, not to mention that the magazine hasn’t been published for almost as many years as were celebrated in that issue. I even found a diary from my college days that I’ll burn as soon as I can tear myself away from reading its purple prose. I can’t remember being that neurotic, not ever.

There were art works from many of the grandkids when they were small: tender little illustrated stories for Oma and Opa or Granny and Grandpa, abstract paintings, geometric drawings. And, I found a baby book for Andy, our retarded son now gone to God. It contained his school pictures and reports of his delight in every day he was with us.

Another drawer held the camping equipment we used to take on vacation every summer. It brought to mind the pain of sleeping on a failed air mattress, invasions by mosquitoes and poison ivy ever lurking to give us The Itch. Many an indifferent meal was cooked on that Coleman stove and eaten with pleasure.

You see, that’s the problem with spring-cleaning the way I used to do it. It was OK when throwing stuff away was helpful, despite the cries of protest from the kids. But now, when memory is a major reality, who could bear to part with anything?

Lent is a time for cleaning up and clearing away, but it’s also a time for appreciating what’s important in life.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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