By Greg Clark, March 20, 1948
“Spring house cleaning,” announced Jimmie Frise, gaily, “starts within a month!”
I looked at him with horror.
“Why the air of good cheer?” I inquired bitterly.
“Because,” declared Jim, with the enthusiasm of a Sunday school superintendent, “this year, I am going to participate in it. In fact, I am starting tonight.”
“You’re worse than a Communist,” I accused. “The Commies attack the social system; but even they don’t tamper with the age-old social system of the home. The man is the wage-earner. The woman looks after the house. Men should have NOTHING to do with spring cleaning.”
“But suppose,” Jim urged, “suppose a man gets a kick out of it?”
“He should have his head read,” I affirmed. It’s the thin edge of the wedge. It’s the beginning of the end. We men should stand together. Let one man surrender his ancient rights and privileges, and no one can foresee where it will end. The man is the wage-earner. The woman looks after the house. That’s our ancient charter. And we’ve got to stand on it.”
“But surely,” said Jim engagingly, “a man can takes off and carry down the storm windows. Surely a man, during spring cleaning, can do a little painting and touching up …”
“Ah, if he has a liking for painting,” I admitted. “But we have to be awfully careful. In this age of change and decay, goodness knows what can happen to the social traditions of the home. Let forms of government alter. Let social systems pass away. But none of these things touches the sacred customs and traditions of the home. A man’s home is his castle. Never forget that.”
“All I am going to do,” said Jim modestly, “is a little painting. And fill up a few cracks in the plaster.”
“That’s different,” I conceded. “What I feared was that you were going to wash windows, polish floors, scrub basements. First thing you know, the neighbors’ wives will find out about it. And even if only one or two of your neighbors’ husbands get caught in the toils, the insidious thing is that it spreads. Your wife can’t help but brag over the telephone to her friends and relations about how Jimmie has sailed in and washed l the upstairs windows outside, and sanded and waxed the whole living room and dining room …”
“No,” assured Jimmie, “It’s just one of the small upstairs bedrooms. The walls and ceiling aren’t papered. They’re painted with that water paint. Right on the plaster. Very pretty. Well, a few cracks have appeared in the walls and ceiling. So tonight I’m going to have a lot of fun. I’m going to fill up the cracks with that patent plaster you can buy in small packages and mix yourself. Then with one of those patent paint rollers, I’m going to decorate the whole room. A soft yellow.”
“Roller, eh?” I queried. “I’ve seen those things in the hardware store windows.”
“They’re simplicity itself, especially with these water paints,” explained Jim. “You just wet a pad with paint, dab the roller on it like a rubber stamp, then roll on the paint.”
“Well,” I grudged, “in my opinion, then this isn’t really taking part in the spring house cleaning after all. It comes under the heading of painting and decorating. I feel a lot better.”
“Come on over,” urged Jim, “after supper, and give me counsel and advice. It’s fun to watch another man painting.”
So after supper, I strolled around the block to Jim’s, bringing with me an old set of overalls that I bought some years ago when I had experienced a fleeting fancy for painting and decorating myself. I thought I might lend Jimmie a hand, if he wanted it.
As I strolled, I thought again of this domestic struggle in which men are now so desperately involved. After all, there are certain seasons of the year in which a man, as the wage-earner, has to pitch in and do double duty. There is the annual or semi-annual stock taking. There are crisis in business which demand of the wage-earner a special effort, overtime and all else. Does the wage-earner expect his wife to come down to the office or factory and help him in these times of crisis? Then, why do women expect men to share in the labors of the annual stock-taking which is called spring cleaning?
Yet all around, you will see men guiltily engaged in all sorts of domestic tasks at this coming season of the year. That’s the way the Communists work. They seek out the soft spots, the sentimental spots. They search for the henpecks in industry.
When I got to Jimmie’s, he came downstairs himself to let me in. The family were all out, at church meetings and club gatherings of the Lenten season. He was garbed in overalls and had his sleeves rolled up.
“Just starting!” he cried hospitably.
“I brought my overalls,” I showed him.
“Good; I thought you would,” said Jim. “There’s a fascination about painting. Especially low down, around the base board. In fact, I was going to ask you over if you hadn’t volunteered.”
Upstairs, Jimmie was in process of moving all the bedroom furniture out into the hall. With this I helped him. To prepare a room for decorating, it is astonishing how much stuff there is to move. Pictures, dressers, bed – and that’s an awful job, because a bed seems to get set in a certain way and you have to use brutal force to take it apart. Mattresses, springs, shelves off the wall brackets, gadgets.
By the time we had everything out in the hall, the room certainly gave the appearance of needing decoration in bad way. When I first entered the room, I privately thought what a pity it was to disturb so pretty a setup. But with everything bare, the room looked positively decrepit. Where the dresser had stood was large pallid spot the size and shape of the dresser mirror. Each picture off the wall had left a ghastly square of greenish blue. And the cracks in the plaster which I had not even noticed, now straggled across ceilings and down walls in spidery designs,
“It’s queer how the furniture of a room,” remarked Jim, “steals the show. Take the furniture out, and you think you have been living in a slum.”
“With a lick of paint,” I reassured, “and those cracks puttied up, this place will be transfigured.”
“By 11 o’clock,” agreed Jim. “I told the kids not to come home before 11. We’ll have everything back in place by then.”
From the hallway he brought in the big pail of water paint and a brand-new roller, with its pad. He also had a very professional-looking old square of canvas to put on the floor. And in another tin, he had the patent plaster or putty for filling up the cracks.
“Now, Jim,” I announced, right at the start, “one thing you want to know about that patent plaster. It swells. You’ve got to be awfully …”
“It says here,” interrupted Jim, reading the label, “that it shrinks. It says to put in a good, well-tamped down quantity of crack-filler and allow for shrinkage.”
“I’ve used buckets of that stuff on boats and canoes,” I insisted, “and I know it bulges.”
“Yes, on boats and canoes, in water,” Jim pointed out.
“Well, anyway,” I urged, “you want to clean up those cracks in the plaster. Don’t, whatever you do, stuff that crack-filler into the cracks the way they are.”
“Why not?” demanded Jimmie, prying the lid off the can of plaster.
“Because,” I informed him, “every one of those cracks has soft, crumbly edges. They’re also full of plaster dust. I bet it says all this on the can.”
We studied the fine print on the can.
“Yes, there it is,” I exclaimed. “‘Warning,’ it says. ‘Be sure to have cracks to be filled clean and trimmed. Plaster will not hold if edges are dusty or infirm.'”
“You never read the fine print on a can,” muttered Jim.
He laid the can down and went and examined the largest of the cracks in the wall. I picked delicately at the edge, and found, just as I said, that it was all crumbly. Jim got off a piece of plaster as big as a quarter.
“Hm,” he said. “Hm, hm, hm?”
“I tell you,” I suggested cheerily. “We’ll trim those cracks with our pocket knives. Go and get your stepladder. You work on the ceiling cracks, and I’ll work on the wall cracks.”
“If I’d known there was going to be all this to do,” complained Jim quietly, “I wouldn’t have told the kids to be in at 11.”
“It won’t take half an hour, concentrated work,” I urged him. “Get the stepladder.”
While Jim was down cellar, I changed into my overalls. I got my pocket knife out and felt its edge. I pride myself on always having a good sharp knife.
By the time Jim got back with the ladder, I had done a small surgical job with the knife, and showed it to him.
“See?” I explained. “Each of these cracks has a decayed sort of margin to it. Take the knife like this -you’ve got a good sharp blade? – and carefully scrape and chisel along the edge like this – oops!”
A chunk of plaster about the size of a 50-cent piece broke loose and fell to the floor. Brown, hairy plaster.
“For heaven’s sake,” cried Jimmie, “look out! I’ve only got this one small can of crack-filler.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but you see what I mean?”
“I do,” said Jim, grimly, “and I think I ought to just stuff the plaster into the cracks.”
“It’ll be a mess,” I assured him.
“Maybe I could skip the cracks and just slap on the yellow paint,” calculated Jim. “It’s the prettiest pale yellow …”
“Jim, it would look awful!” I protested.
“Well…” he heaved.
More cautiously, I went at the wall crack with my knife, and pared off the really crumbly edges. Jim watched intently.
“Don’t widen them too much!” he warned.
I got about a foot of it done, and then stood buck, to demonstrate to him what a nice clean crack it made into which to stuff the plaster.
“Okay,” he said, opening his pocket knife and mounting the stepladder. The ceiling cracks were not as wide or as bad as the wall cracks. With his knife tip, Jim timidly scratched and poked along the cracks, bringing down a little rain of dried crumbles.
“Go to it!” I urged from below. “You’ve at least got to widen them enough to stick a little putty in.
He scratched a little harder. Some small change, nickel, dime and quarter size, rained suddenly down.
Jim spread his fingers upward and started to press and push lightly on the plaster around the crack.
“Why,” he cried, “this plaster is all ready to ..!”
Which it did; at exactly that instant. A large section of the ceiling simply let go, as if it had been pie crust. In a smothering cloud of plaster dust, than which there is none more dusty, about eight square feet of the ceiling dropped, dryly, flatly and with a brief and shattering crash, onto the floor.
And the creeping clouds rose and began their instant wandering.
We did not have the bedroom door closed, of course. And the dust went out the hall, all over the stacked furniture and the pictures and chairs and knick-knacks. Downstairs it rolled, into the living room, into the dining room, a white, Hasting ghost of a cloud.
First: we closed doors – too late, we admit. Then we got shovel and ash cans and bushel baskets, and shovelled plaster off the floor.
Then we got cloths and damp cloths and the chamois Jim uses on his car, and mops. And we scuttled from room to room, downstairs and up, taking off the worst. By 11 o’clock we had things reasonably shipshape, although the electric light bulbs all seemed dim.
As Jimmie let me out the side door, he said:
“You don’t mind I put the blame on you, do you? I’d do the same for you.”
“Okay,” I agreed hastily. “But there’s one thing I’ve been thinking. Hitler found it out. Hitler found out that there are certain things that should be left to the painters and decorators.”
“Okay, okay!” hastened Jim, closing the door on me. And just as I rounded the corner, I saw the family car turn in Jimmie’s side drive.
Editor’s Note: I really don’t understand the title of this piece. Even the reference at the end doesn’t make sense to me.
Post-war animosity to the Soviet Union and Communism is evident in Greg’s use of the term “commies”.
Paint rollers were invented in 1938, but did not become common until after World War Two, which is why it is being implied as something new to them both.
This is also the first story published on this site from the Montreal Standard instead of the Toronto Star Weekly.