Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: spring cleaning


Pinterest photo

WNLP editor’s note: Here’s another chapter from the memoirs of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., grew up in La Porte. WNLP readers’ many responses to her memoirs have added more sweet stories of our hometown. Arlene graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities; she also studied in various European countries. Look forward to more of her memoirs soon on WNLP. 

Until now my childhood memories have focused on what happened outside the house — Maple School, playing ON Niles Street, vacation trips, the county fair, downtown Lincoln Way, etc. Remembering events from so many years ago, should I use the word “nostalgia”? A longing for what was and will never return? A vain attempt to recapture a past ever fleeting and perhaps now seemingly more pleasant than it probably was? 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

My adult life has been spent to a great extent outside the house until recent sheltering during the pandemic. It is inside the house during childhood where we pick up practices and behavior that unconsciously govern our lives when we are out of the nest. Most of all I recall how hard my parents worked. 

Life was not easy for women in the 1930s and early ’40s in La Porte. With exceptions, mothers cooked and did housework and cared for children during the day and at night prepared them for bed and read stories, just as they do today. But what drudgery that housework was! 

Let’s start with the weekly wash. Water in galvanized pails reached boiling on the old gas stove in our basement and was carted to the next room to dump into a washing  machine. To it was attached a wringer, which pivoted to two large zinc rinsing tubs, which also had to be filled. 

Soapy clothes were hand fed into the wringer and fell into tub #1 for hand rinsing. Then the wringer pivoted for another wringing and second rinse till finally they fell into a  waiting basket. Mother had to tote the heavy basket up the steps and through the kitchen to an outside clothesline. During a winter snow season she used clotheslines strung in the basement and attic. No car was at her disposal for a  dash to a laundromat. What was that? No wonder the old saying was Mondays were for washing and Tuesdays were for ironing. They were really all-day tasks.

Crinkle crepe wasn’t widely used, while quick-drying and wrinkle-free fabrics like nylon and polyester hadn’t arrived. Mom  taught me the proper way to hang out various garments for quick drying and minimum wrinkles. Did there have to be the right way to do everything?

Now many years later I put up clotheslines in my walled patio, and only a long, rainy season (once every few years) forces me to use the dryer. The sun bleaches whites, and colored items blow in shady areas. They are pinned up as I was instructed, and the fresh odor is divine! I am fortunate to be in an area where I have this freedom, for many friends live in communities with restrictions forbidding a clothesline. Only one house above mine can see part of the lines, which are gone by midday. No complaints. I was here first. No rules. My neighborhood doesn’t even have sidewalks or street lights! 

Away from La Porte, domestic chores weren’t part of my life in college and California and South America, but once married I remembered what to do. April had arrived, time for “spring cleaning.” Our house in California didn’t seem very dirty, but I tore the place apart and continued doing so for several years, squeezing in the task along with grading papers and preparing lectures on weekends. Then one day it dawned on me that coal-burning furnaces in La Porte were the culprits behind “spring cleaning.” No coal furnace in California. No more “spring cleaning” for me.  

My father had to shovel coal into a hungry dinosaur in the basement to force welcome heat into the rooms above. From the furnace vents also blew upward an invisible dark powder that slowly blackened the wallpaper, as in most La Porte houses back in the ’30s. From time to time my  parents rented a steam machine to soften the paper before they pulled if off with metal scrapers. Then they did the repapering themselves, disrupting the house with trestle tables for laying out and pasting long sheets.

If the wallpaper didn’t need to be replaced, at least it needed “spring cleaning.” Some substance like a soft rubbery clay or Play-Dough came in cans and was called “wallpaper cleaner.” My parents went from room to room, pressing the walls from the ceiling downward with a ball of the cleaner. Dad did the upper portions that Mom finished below. They  didn’t need a gym for stretching exercises. For the following strip they folded the dirty part of the ball inward to expose a clean surface. The difference was astounding. How could we have lived in such a filthy place so many months? All their labor was in addition to my dad’s working eight hours and mom’s regular duties. 

But not only the walls needed cleaning. Upholstery had absorbed coal soot. Clean it. Throw rugs surrendered to a  carpet beater. Soot-laden lace curtains were washed to dry outside on a warm, sunny day, stretched on a wooden frame the size of the dry curtain. From the frame protruded small nails, to which were attached the edges of the curtain. At the same time Dad had to remove the protective glass storm windows and replace them with screens for the summer. Down went the winter storm shed; up went the screened porch. “Spring cleaning” was in full force.  

Winter clothes were aired to put away; summer clothes came out, often no longer fitting. So much work!

Out in California, the calendar would remind me that it was time to take out summer clothing and put away woolens. But we needed those sweaters for chilly evenings, and I’d also been wearing cottons all winter. The situation was most bewildering the first few years. Things weren’t done as they had been when I was a kid back in La Porte.

One Response to “Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: spring cleaning”

  1. Sam

    May 24. 2021

    Dear Arlene,
    My, those poor housewives. I feel guilty for complaining after reading the chore list from your childhood. Thank goodness for wash machines, dryers, and
    permanent press fabrics. I also enjoyed your clothesline photo! Thanks again for a delightful step back in time.

    Reply to this comment

Leave a Reply