Springing into historic cleanliness


Ann Kuehn - Contributing columnist



”Spring has sprung, the dust has riz, where last year’s careless woman lives.”

Spring is doing just that. Daffodils drilled into the backyard clay are peeking out beneath leaves. Blooming may or may not be an option, but there is hope. The other hope is that the black-ice-sludge at the end of the street may finally disappear. Hope springs eternal.

The downside is the sun now illuminating layers of dust on surfaces; fingerprints and nose prints (dog) on sliding doors and windows; graying blinds and curtains; musty outer bedding; cluttered drawers; disorganized shelves; confused closets … blah!

“Mom,” said my son, “you are too obsessed with cleaning.” This from a man who has a “Watership Down” enclave encamped under his bed. What he fails to realize is that his mother (me) comes from a long line of very, very clean women. Thankfully, I am hardly obsessive, but I do not like, nor intend to, live with dirt.

My maternal grandfather was a coal miner. He and my grandmother had nine children in a three-bedroom house, built on an Appalachian slant. The children slept stacked like firewood. The house had neither electricity, running water nor, consequently, indoor plumbing.

My grandmother was fanatically clean. Each child was washed and starched into a state of rigidity (until escaping outside). The coal stove was polished, bass lamps and beds (eventually thrown into the creek as “old fashioned”) buffeted to a sheen, rugs beaten weekly, floors swept and washed daily. All with the knowledge that every open window, door, and human brought in clouds of coal dust.

Each daughter, once old enough to walk, was handed a cleaning rag.

The four boys temporarily followed their father into the mines. Herein lies a story.

My grandfather’s great grandmother was the first woman to graduate from a Philadelphia dental college. Since there was no housing, she resided at the home of the president, a gentleman by the name of Chapman. Every succeeding generation has had at least one son with Chapman as his middle name.

That woman, my great great grandmother, married a lawyer and, with combined incomes, bought multiple coal producing mountains far away from Philadelphia luxuries. Unfortunately their two sons succumbed to “sin”— drinking and gambling.

My grandfather, instead of owning mines, worked down in them. He died of black lung disease. I once asked an aunt why I was never around my grandfather’s people.

“Because” she whispered, “they drink.” My grandmother was a Methodist.

That Appalachian town on a slant was populated by Welsh Methodists and European Catholics. While men worked together in the mines, socially the groups remained distinctly separate: Methodists at the top of the slant, Catholics at the bottom.

Years later, when as an adult I returned, the situation was reversed. Please, now, let there be mingling. Only briefly did I visit a corner of Wales, but I realized the little Appalachian town on a slant was an exact replica of Welsh mining towns. Immigrants did that across America.

My four uncles initially followed their father into the mines. World War II pulled out all but the youngest. After the war, George returned to mining ventures. It was only at his funeral that we realized how important he was — the governor and other notables attending. George had moved up in the coal world.

I was a very small, very skinny, little girl. The terror of my life, when visiting, was having to use the outhouse. I was convinced some subterranean menace would drag me down, never to be recovered.

I also remember my grandmother bringing in buckets of water from the outside pump to be mixed with the huge pots of water boiling on the coal stove, poured into the large galvanized tub placed in the kitchen. Isolated in another room, we would take turns bathing — the youngest uncle, back from the mine, being the last to wash.

Once removed from the house on a slant, my mother and her sisters practiced “cleanliness next to Godliness” with the same fervor as their mother — fortunate to then live in a world with amenities.

My mother insisted on removal of shoes, furniture covered (fortunately not in plastic), and all things dust-, tarnish- and lint-free. It made for a limiting soil controlled daily/monthly existence. She drove me crazy when she visited, remarking on the evident disorder.

I had five children and a job. At least the beds were made.

In my dotage, I am an annual, sometimes longer, Deep Cleaner — not to be confused as a whiz at rearranging dust. Last year somehow slipped by so, darn, if this isn’t it. I need to get moving. Once the soil warms, I will be outside until October.

My paternal grandmother was a tiny Mennonite lady who lived on a dairy farm. She too was CLEAN. She had a hired girl, but that only meant the two of them, plus my aunts, worked even harder.

That grandmother deserves her own story. It will come in its own time.

Ann Kuehn resides at Ohio Living Cape May in Wilmington. She says, “I gravitated to Ohio at age 18 and never left” and moved to Sabina in 1987.

Ann Kuehn

Contributing columnist