(Christian Courier column – September 28, 2015)
Our basement flooded last October. We’d lived in our home for 27 years without a single water problem. This explains why, when the hydro went out during a violent thunderstorm, we didn’t check the sump pump. Complacency. Several inches of water soaked our basement, resulting in ruined flooring, a crawl space full of soggy Christmas decorations, and the marshy reek of groundwater.
With five fully-finished rooms in the basement, it was a big clean-up job. My husband Mark and brother-in-law Harry worked to extract the water with shop vacs. A mountain of waterlogged possessions accumulated in the driveway. Our insurance company sent over a crew who ripped out carpets and laminate flooring and installed huge fans to dry out the place. An adjustor arrived to survey the damage. Eventually we got a cheque.
The flood was a nuisance, but it wasn’t tragic. With the passing away of my brother-in-law Tim earlier in the year, it wasn’t hard to muster up perspective. Everything we lost was replaceable.
However, I found myself surprisingly reluctant to replace the stuff. It was freeing to toss out damp magazines, kids’ toys and the ridiculous amount of Christmas paraphernalia I had collected over the years. Perhaps it’s my age, or an evolving eco-responsibility, but I’m increasingly unwilling to fill up my life with things. I don’t want to be responsible for the nautical lamp that belonged to Mark’s grandfather. I don’t want to imbue with unwarranted nostalgia the needlepoint and crewel work I did in my 20s. Simplicity has its own allure.
So, though we could afford to replace everything with the insurance money, we didn’t. We refreshed undamaged paneling and bookcases and coffee tables with paint. We kept our 12-year-old sofa and loveseat since they were relatively unscathed. Of course we replaced the floors and spoiled drywall. Mark did the work himself.
We purged our books. Again, it was liberating. In fact, some resentment flared at my university profs for requiring me to buy so many obscure textbooks I never looked at again. Still, those books represented the heady days of university. Bittersweet decisions … toss or keep Origins of the Modern Japanese State and The Chinese View of Their Place in the World?
Recently we put the finishing touches on our renovated basement. I scoured every nook and cranny to remove lingering drywall dust. I washed the new tile floors (that look amazingly like hardwood) the old-fashioned way, on my hands and knees. I lovingly wiped all the books we had saved and organized them on the bookshelves. It’s always deeply satisfying for me to clean stuff and put it in its proper place. A little compulsive, you ask? Not the first time that suggestion has been made. 🙂
The whole process reminded me of one of my favourite stories. Not a story, really, but a warmly intimate portrait of Walter Wangerin’s mother from his book, Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? Wangerin writes, in lavish, exclamatory prose, about his mother’s spring cleaning rituals. Rugs were beaten. Winter clothes were washed and stored in drawers with fresh paper linings. The scent of Spic and Span percolated throughout the house.
Wangerin expresses regret for not thanking his mother when he was a child for her yearly spring cleaning. Now he understands its significance: “And spring was always that fresh start of the faith and hope in cleanliness, of the forgiveness of cleanliness, actually, since everything old and fusty could be eliminated, allowing the new to take its place – or better yet, the old itself could be the new again.”
He draws a direct line from the sacrificial cleaning of his mother to a world that seemed ordered and good and kind: “My mother assured me annually that newness has a right and a reality, that error can be forgiven, that the sinner can be reclaimed. In springtime she surrounded me with the immediate, primal light of God.” My transported heart beats “yes” to Wangerin’s exuberant insights. “Yes” to the wink of polish beneath grime, “yes” to the emancipation of soap and water, “yes” to the conversion of old to new.
It’s my turn. I bless you, Mom, for teaching me to clean. I bless you, every janitor and maid, handyman and housekeeping aide. May your gnarled hands know the consecration of your work — the holiness of your shined surfaces, the redemptive enchantment of “fixed” and “restored,” the approving smile of God as you renew the places where he is coming to live.