The Smell of Pine
by: Jean Cogdell
I hear the frustration in my daughter’s voice. Not so much as a hello when I answer the ringing phone.
“Mother, your granddaughters will be the death of me. Elizabeth is the worst, and that smart-mouth of hers will drive me to drink.”
“What now Tara?”
I tip the phone from my mouth, no point adding fuel to the fire should she hear my laughter.
“Mention cleaning around here and they carry on like the smell of pine is poison gas.”
As I listen to my daughter moaning about my beautiful grandchildren. I let my mind drift back in time, back to memories of springtime filled with soap and water.
To this day, the smell of pine and lemon oil can propel me back in a nano second to a time when computers were a thing of science fiction. In the Deep South, where I grew up, springtime meant spring-cleaning and lots of hard work.
“This week we need to get started with the spring-cleaning.” My mama looks around the table. I look down, focus on my plate, and silently pray for rain.
“My azaleas sure look nice.”
Everyone murmurs agreement, hoping she moves to something else.
“The weather is lovely, and the curtains will dry quickly on the line today.” Her enthusiasm is not contagious.
Mama continues with the to-do list. Again, no one says a word. No point, if Mama has it in her head spring-cleaning will commence. Then nothing will change her mind.
At last, I can no longer remain silent. “Some of the kids from school are going to the lake during spring break.”
“Good for them.”
Mama’s dark eyes narrowing and her lips form a thin line; she waits for me to finish. When I didn’t say anything more she continues.
“I can’t control what some of the other kids do or don’t do Janice.” The conversation ends.
Later that night I lay in bed and dread the coming week. I know one thing for sure; I won’t be going to the lake.
Women of the south believe the time for spring-cleaning arrives at the first sign of blooming azaleas, budding trees, and temperatures above freezing. They pull down curtains, and fling open windows airing out the house. There are germs to be rid of; invisible cobwebs to sweep from corners, closets to purge, and woodwork to wash. First off, every Southern housekeeper worth her salt washes woodwork every spring, whether dirty or not.
No sleeping in; bright, and early next morning, Mama is raring to get started. I’m sorry to say, women’s lib hasn’t arrived in our small town. I give my brother the evil eye as mama shoos him out the back door.
“Rusty, go play and stay out of our way. This is woman’s work.”
Behind Mama’s back, my younger brother sticks his thumbs in big Dumbo ears, making a face, and with a grin skips out the door. I want to wring his scrawny, redheaded neck.
“Mama, he’s big enough to help.”
“Janice, stop whining. Rusty will have a wife to clean his home. I’ve explained this before; I’m not going to argue with you today.”
“It’s okay Janice, we’re gonna help.” Daisy stands in the kitchen holding an arm full of rags waiting with Susie on the floor sucking her thumb. Great little helpers I’ve got there.
Mama fills buckets with warm, soapy water. I groan as Susie splashes soapy water everywhere knowing I’ll be the one cleaning the spilled mess. We women proceed rags in hand, to scrub all of the baseboards, as well as every door frame in the house. The way Mama makes us scrub wood I believe we probably remove as much paint as dirt. That’s washing woodwork.
There’s a lot more to the rite of passage the southern women call spring-cleaning than simply wiping down baseboards and doorframes. The windows need to sparkle. I watch as Susie turns black from her blond curls to the tip of tiny her barefoot toes as we crumple up newspapers. Mama saves newspapers throughout the winter for the purpose of drying her windows until they sparkle. By the time, Mama’s windows were squeaky clean, and streak free, Loretta Lynn didn’t have anything on the three of us. Yes, we all three could pass for coal miner’s daughters.
I figure it’s gonna take most of spring break washing, or polishing anything that doesn’t move before Mama’s satisfied her house passes for germ free, and spring-clean. The scent of pine that assaults the nose and burns our eyes comes from a bottle, not from the tall trees outside our house. Lord, I hate the smell of pine.
To Mama there is only one way to ensure a proper-waxed floor, at eye level. Let me assure you, “wax on wax off” came along way before the auto industry made millions coining the phrase. Southern women have known how to apply paste wax for decades. Mama makes sure I know the proper way to wax to her hardwood floors. When we’re through, not a bowling alley for fifty miles can best Mama’s floors.
“Mama this little can of paste can’t do the whole floor.” I whine as on hands and knees I make small circles of white.
“Janice more elbow grease and less complaining.”
Next to me, Daisy buffs at the white. “We’ll never finish. My arm is so tired, Jan.”
“Here, Daisy trade. You’re leaving too much; the old witch will make us do it over.”
“I’m doing my best. Where’s Susie? She’s supposed to be helping.”
“I don’t know, she better not be getting into trouble. I swear when I grow up I’ll never abuse my kids.”
“Shh, Mama will hear you.” Daisy looks over her shoulder. Ever the peacemaker she tries to keep me quiet.
“I don’t care. I mean it; this is abuse. To work little kids like slaves.” My bravado falters at the sight of Daisy’s ever widening blue eyes.
On hands and knees, with every floor I scrub, wax, and every table I polish, I promise this mistreatment will end with me. I continue grumbling as we work.
“I swear Daisy, if I ever have children, I’ll never enslave them, nor work them the way Mama does us.”
Along with the sound of banging pots and pans, the kitchen radio came on and country music blares throughout the house. Mama loves country music. I roll my eyes and wish for earplugs when I hear Mama singing along with Patsy Cline. Now as, I look back there may be more of a connection to our complaints than her love of country music. As the three of us continue working and griping through the list of chores, something occurs to me.
“Daisy, I don’t think mama understands just how much she exploits us kids.”
In the grass, Susie sat by the basket folding dry clothes as Daisy take them off the clothesline.
“Daisy, means take advantage of us.”
“I don’t know Jan; you’ll only make her mad.”
“I’ll explain the word to her. We learned about exploit-tat-ion in school. Maybe she doesn’t understand.”
It’s an understatement to say I misjudged Mama. When we brought the laundry inside, I take it upon myself to enlighten her.
“Mama, do you know what exploit-tat-ion means?”
“Yes, why?” She turns from the sink her hands dripping with soapy water reaching for the dish towel.
“Well, we learned in school last week how the government exploits some people.”
“Oh.” One eyebrow lifts almost to her hairline as she gives me her full attention.
“Yes, take the men outside working the chain gang. The government works those men like dogs in this heat. Every spring the county exploits prisoners by sending them to work our roads.”
“You don’t say. You learned this in school?”
“Uh huh, and do you realize you exploit us kids too?”
Too bad I didn’t know when to stop talking. But, no, I keep going.
“Just because the men on the chain gang come to town every spring working the roads doesn’t mean you can take advantage of warm weather to work us like dogs too.”
“Are you through?” Mama’s voice gets real soft, which should’ve been a sign.
Daisy tugs on my shirt, but still I didn’t notice the calm before the storm.
“Well I do have another question. Why for the love of God, does anyone need a house this clean anyway?”
I heard Daisy squeak as she inhaled. To this day Daisy swears Mama’s head began to spin and smoke started pouring from her ears. Little kids do exaggerate.
“Janice, let me remind you there are plenty of uses for soap. One of my favorite can correct your affliction to blaspheme the Lord if you cannot control yourself.”
Each word grows louder until I think the neighbors in the next county can hear Mama. She steps closer, her finger an inch from my face, and continues her lecture, “Our family may not have much, but we can wash what do have.”
She believes in cleanliness being close to godliness and the importance of being thankful. I understand the thankful part, but I keep thoughts to myself about God and angels having no need to worry about cleanliness. I decide best not share any ideas I have regarding heaven not being dirty with Mama. Somehow, I reckon she’ll not understand.
“If someone stops by and sees this messy house I’ll drop dead on the spot. I’ll not have people in town thinking we live like white trash.”
I, in my infinite wisdom, point out we didn’t do a lot of entertaining.
“Janice Eliza your smart-mouth will be the death of me!”
“So much for no wrong questions.” I mutter under my breath.
“Did you say something else?”
Behind mama, Daisy and Susie stand, their eyes wide shaking their heads at me.
Occasionally I know to keep some thoughts to myself; twice in one day must be a record.
“Well, since you’re so worried about the men working outside, I think it’d be right Christian of us to take those poor souls some cool water.”
By us, she meant me. As the oldest, I head out lugging that bucket of drinking water, which I’m sure weighed at least a hundred pounds, all the way to the road. I probably spill half of the water before reaching the men.
“Janice, I told you Mama would get mad. Now look what happened.” Daisy holds Susie’s hand as they tag along swinging the water dippers.
“Susie, don’t drag the dipper. Daisy, make sure you keep up with her and don’t let her wonder off.” I lead the way to the edge of the road.
We all three stare wide-eyed as deer in headlights when the men approach, chains rattling, taking turns at the water pail. I imagine my knocking skinny knees make nearly as much noise as those chains that dangle around their ankles. The men politely thank us for the cool water.
“That’s enough men. Back to work.” My eyes drift from steel-toed boots to the barrel of a shotgun and meet devil-dark eyes staring out from the weathered face of the state guard.
“Ladies.” He touches the brim of his hat, and with a nod turns, herds the men back to work. He has to be the meanest looking man I’ve ever seen in my young life. One look from him and we couldn’t get back to mama, and her spring-cleaning fast enough.
The rest of the week, we keep most of our complaints to a minimum, and I, my smart aleck comments. Spring-cleaning doesn’t seem so bad after seeing, those men up close, and personal. I guess you could say Mama was ahead of her time; she had her own version of “scared straight.”
Now I recall, with amusement, the spring when my girls were old enough to learn about spring-cleaning. I remember turning the radio to country music, flinging open the windows to let the germs out, grabbing buckets of soapy water, and laughing as my girls rolled their eyes. Their look of bewilderment at my joy was a sight to behold as I regaled them with stories of my childhood. I went on to explain how everyone hates learning the art of cleaning.
My daughters took complaining to a whole new level, and a couple of times I almost caved. However, like my mother before me, I went on to enlighten them on the importance of tradition, and of learning to do a job right. They thought I was joking about how lucky we were to have paper towels and Windex. Yes, the cleaning products are better; I hope the memories that my daughters and I made are too. Now, as I listen to them tell their stories, I’m not so sure.
“Mother, are you listening to me?” I pull myself back to the here and now.
“Yes of course Tara, I understand.”
I do my best to stay in the present, and murmur an appropriate response, as Tara laments the difficulties of motherhood. At long last, she winds down, and we say goodbye.
My daughters now have their own stories to tell of washing woodwork, polishing floors, and ironing linens. Once again, history continues, through complaints and greatly exaggerated stories of indentured servitude that they can pass on to my grandchildren. Oh, how the stories have grown.
After listening to Tara, one thing I’ve come to know for sure, you can’t take the southern out of a woman. It’s there to stay no matter whom she marries or where she goes. A southern woman will pass the South down to her offspring, and spring-cleaning is an itch she must scratch. For a woman of the south, has southern imprinted on her soul as sure as mapped genes in her DNA.
Now, I hire someone else to do my spring-cleaning, and to tell the truth, they don’t do near as good a job, but things change. Maybe I’m the one who’s changing. I no longer fret if my windows fail to sparkle, and the scent of pine won’t drop a ten-point buck. I learning to be a little more flexible, although maybe flexible not the right word, for a woman my age. Since, should I manage to get down low enough to clean woodwork someone should be here to call 911. The point is, time marches on, and I’ve come to realize, I can enjoy springtime without breaking my back cleaning the damn house. I’m learning not to sweat the small stuff and a lick and a promise will work in a pinch.
So now I’ll take pleasure by opening the windows, mixing a tall sweet-tea, listen to music on my IPod, and curling up with my Kindle on my back porch swing. I still love the springtime but most of all; I love springtime in the South.