Is your house clean for Thanksgiving?

Kathleen Marsh

When I was a teenager, deep cleaning our farmhouse was an annual ritual. Every spring and fall, my mother would announce that it was time to “house-clean.” I would argue and complain. “Why must we do this again? We clean the house every Saturday.” Her terse response: “That is top-cleaning; this is house-cleaning.” Oh. Yeah. That’s why it took several Saturdays of hard work to get the house ready for relatives and guests who came at Easter time and then again from Thanksgiving to Three Kings Day (Epiphany) on Jan. 6.

OK. Houses today can get cluttered and messy and dirty, but nothing like farmhouses in what some people fondly and foolishly call the “good old days.” What people forget is that those were the days of wood- and coal-fired furnaces belching out heated air that coated plastered walls with a gray glaze. During the summer, cooking, baking and outdoor air coaxed through open windows by box fans added another layer of grime. It was a major challenge to get a house clean, especially when the leader of the pack (Mom) set very high standards.

Not one to break tradition, Mom gave us our marching orders. I fetched the rags, buckets, sponges, mops, dust cloths and enough cleaning agents to turn Lake Winnebago into a toxic dump. I especially hated the smell of Pine Sol, which to this day makes my stomach turn.

Using Sani-Flush for cleaning the toilet was a fearsome task. Sani-Flush came in crystals containing sodium bisulfate. When mixed with water, sodium bisulfate produces a highly corrosive acidic solution that dissolves iron, magnesium and calcium from the bowl. It can also badly burn human skin and was discontinued in 2013 due to environmental concerns, but it’s all we had back then. So cleaning the commode was exclusively Mom’s job. I didn’t complain about that.

While Mom attended to the toilet, my older sister, Marge, replaced the bag in the Kirby vacuum cleaner. My younger sister, Mary Beth, got out the Kirby attachments and threatened us with the “snake” (accessory tool hose), giggling as she waved it around in our faces until Mom emerged from the bathroom and got us back to the business at hand.

Ready. Set. Go. Armed with our world-class cleaning arsenal, the four of us attacked one room at a time. Mom’s sole motivator was to let us fire up our 45 RPM record player. As we worked, we were either bickering about who had the hardest job or singing along to Buddy Holly, Elvis, Johnny Cash and, my personal favorite, Ricky Nelson.

I was the one who complained the most, so I had to do the ceiling. This meant wrenching my neck to wash overhead while dangling from a wooden stepladder while Mom took down, cleaned and replaced the ceiling light globes that contained a disgusting collection of dead bugs. My sisters were each assigned a wall, washing from bottom to top to prevent the cleaning water from dripping down and creating “tracks.” Mom did the surfaces they couldn’t reach.

We scoured doors, trim and baseboards. We flipped mattresses, got out the winter quilts and opened the floor registers so we would have a bit of heat in the upstairs bedrooms. My younger sister polished the wood tables; my older sister vacuumed the upholstery. Mom and I took the throw rugs outside, shook them hard several times until all the dirt and dust that had been trapped in them rained down on us. When she was satisfied that they were as clean as they were going to get, we draped them over the porch railing to “air out.”

Right on cue, my sisters always managed to disappear while we were outside. You’d think I’d learn, but no. I whined so long and loud that I had to scrub and wax the linoleum floors on my hands and knees while Mom ironed and hung the freshly washed curtains.

At last we were ready for company which came in a steady stream. Unfortunately, this included boy cousins who would track in mud and snow, leave handprints on the walls and spill soda all over the furniture and rugs. It’s a good thing I had my Ricky Nelson records, or things might have gotten really ugly.

Kathleen Marsh is a lifelong educator, writer and community advocate. She has published eight books, four on the history of Townsend, where she and husband Jon are happily retired on the beautiful Townsend Flowage.