Photo by Ted Eastburn

The Middle Distance 3.9.12

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Photo by Sean Cayton

Spring is coming and the signs are undeniable: News stories of massive storm cells unleashing tornadoes across Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, taking out entire towns in their paths. Out here in Colorado where natives dare not mention it feels like spring lest they jinx it, pink sunsets linger over the mountains in the last dwindling minutes of newfound daylight. We’ve seen runs of warm, shirtsleeve days, three or four in a row. Buds are swelling on the lilacs.

Weathermen frantically predict snowstorms that don’t materialize and pale neighbors emerge from their boxes with blinking eyes, staring blindly into the sun. Spring is really almost here, and with it the inevitable urge toward spring-cleaning.

Last week’s Thursday New York Times Home section featured a two-page layout on spring-cleaning — tools needed, tips on technique, how to attack clutter. The author glibly recalled his experience scrubbing down his Manhattan apartment, removing all the knick-knacks and polishing the surfaces on which they were displayed, then repositioning them one-by-one. If not for my own acute case of spring fever, I would never waste a morning reading an entire article on house cleaning, but just imagining his dust purge had me fantasizing a gleaming clean house.

I looked around at my 112-year-old house with its tall windows, high ceilings, and multi-faceted trim, at the clutter crowding every open surface in every room, and felt defeated before I’d even taken the vacuum cleaner out of the closet.

The truth is I am not a good housekeeper. I am a very good nester, burying myself in things that give me comfort, but I am rarely if ever overcome with concern over when something was last cleaned. I swipe the countertops but don’t disinfect them, sweep the floors but don’t mop them until they get sticky. I vacuum the dog hair when it begins to clump.

But after reading the Times article, I longed for shiny, clean windows. Mine had gotten so dirty over time that I had grown accustomed to a hazy outlook. I started cleaning the ones I could reach without a step stool and quickly realized that at the rate I was going it would take two months to complete the job. I would never screw up the energy or resolve to wrench open the painted-over wooden frames of the ancient storm windows that had grown miniature landscapes of cobwebs after so many years of neglect. So I found a window cleaning service, affordable and highly recommended by a neighbor with a house nearly as old as mine.

The window washers were two trim women in a truck with a folded ladder on top. One of them toured the house with a clipboard and quickly and efficiently counted and checked out the condition of the windows, then gave me an estimate. They brought in buckets and rags, squeegees and scrapers, and set to work. They wanted none of my small talk. I evacuated to the front porch to work on the computer, feeling weak and useless. They took a five-minute smoke break every hour or two. In five hours, they had cleaned every square inch of wavy thin glass, inside and out. They had dismantled every screen, dusted every sill, and chipped away at every errant paint blob.

The result was breathtaking. I walked around my house feeling like a speck in the center of a clear glass kaleidoscope. From the upstairs room with its wall of windows I could see the neat edges of the neighbor’s flowerbeds, still heaped with winter leaves. It was like the time when I was a kid with a little touch of nearsightedness and got glasses for the first time and saw things I had never seen before, like the words on billboards, the mortar between bricks.

In the late afternoon, the western sun cast sharp shadows across my rooms, and for the first time since I’ve lived in this house, I noticed the intricate diamond shapes of the panes in one of the small windows flanking the staircase. Inside the house, every mote of dust and each pale dog hair was illuminated, reminding me that spring-cleaning had just begun.

A much ballyhooed spring snowstorm was predicted that night and I couldn’t wait to lie in bed with the shades open, watching the snowfall. But spring is unpredictable in the mountain West and there was no snow, just stars as bright as diamonds and the passing of a thinly veiled almost full moon, a ghost ship sailing across the night sky, visible as clear as day through newly cleaned windows.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


11 Responses to The Middle Distance, 3/9/12: Shiny Clean Windows

  1. Carmen Thornburgh says:

    Once again, Thank you for opening my eyes to the beauty that surrounds us! Think i’ll go clean my windows

  2. Paula says:

    Guess I need to come visit for a week,,,, I love cleaning!

  3. Rose Enyeart says:

    Oh, Kathryn, I loved it!!! I love the urge to clean and throw out stuff that hits me in Spring, or what comes closest to it here. Thanks, your descriptions were breathtaking. I’ll get to work!!!

  4. anne lennox says:

    Your timing is impeccable. Inspiring. The windows and slider on the west wall of my house are so filthy I shudder when I try to look through them. I hired a window washer a couple of years ago, and it was worth every dollar, but I intend to do it myself this year. I’ll be thinking of you as I squeegee!

  5. kathleen f collins says:

    SOOOOOO true! Window cleaners once a year make my life ever so much more joyful….. thank you !

  6. Diane says:

    I, too, am a good nester…

  7. Libby says:

    Excellent piece, again, Kathryn! However, I still await this Spring’s OCD-inspired moments. I once subsidized as a “Merry Maid.” Now, when I recognize I should be checking for and eradicating “dust bunnies”(however-termed in our region), I consider the comforting words of my late Scandinavian Grandma as she weighed cleanliness against weariness: “Not today. Nay. They don’t eat anything!”

  8. Joe Uveges says:

    Lovely again Kathryn. My favorite line. “weathermen frantically predict snow. . . “

  9. Liz says:

    Kathryn – the “nest” of your home is one of my favorite places.

  10. Teryl says:

    I too have a small house 112 years old, two stories, well nested, with odd and unreachable windows that may never have been cleaned. I manage a few on my own, but the rest are too daunting and my Scandinavian self seeems to agree with Libby’s grandma. But don’t we love our sunny Colorado light!?! Thanks for your inspiration. (And for last night’s lovely story telling!!)

  11. HJWithers says:

    Bless you, Kathryn, for touching on a topic, the side effects from childhood I still deal with at 58, which is getting glasses that work for your eye problem. Mine was not just nearsightedness, but retrolental fibroplasia. It causes double vision, and that, along with other lesser problems meant I never saw dirt, etc into my teen years. Finally rememdied with ophthalmoligist prescription glasses in my early 20′s,I can relate to learning how to see all over again, and love your story of clean windows. I sure never learned how to “Spring Clean”. You are a hero to people who struggle with clutter. Thank you for being an inspiration to so many.


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