Sidewalk Sweepers – And Essay by Joy DeKok
I’ve been cleaning out my memory boxes. These plastic drawers in our basement hold photos (thousands is not an exaggeration), letters, cards, souvenirs from school days and yesterday, and pages colored with love to us by the kids (now mostly adults) we love.
There is an Avon decanter of a pretty girl who is all yellow. She holds my favorite teen perfume – the first scent of my own I was allowed to wear. Sweet Honesty. I unscrewed the cap carefully, expecting the fragrance to stink. It smelled good still, and memories of the clothes I wore back then, fun times spent with family and friends and accepting Jesus as my Savior played through my mind in seconds like an old-fashioned slideshow on steroids.
When I came across some old papers Daddy sent me for a speech I did in my secretarial training at the Vo-Tech, I sat down and let my mind linger for a while. He worked at Tenant Company for years. They make sweepers for the inside and outsides of buildings. I sometimes see them in the Mayo buildings in Rochester, and pride for Daddy still overflows in my heart.
Those memories led me hither and yon. To and fro. Here and there. And to this . . .
One morning Grandma Joy taught me to sweep the sidewalk outside her home. The broom, much taller than I was, felt unnatural in my small hands. After bonking myself on the head, dropping the thing more than once, I made it to the end of the sidewalk. Thinking I was finished, I held the stick with bristles on the end of it toward Grandma. She pointed at the stairs. That’s when I learned wooden stairs were part of the sidewalk sweeping. I may have grumbled something to her like, “At our house, Mama does this.” This is possible because when I got home, Mama started teaching me the fine art of sweeping inside our house and the porch.
Grandma Pater also handed me a broom at her house, and I swept her sidewalk to the door. Her sidewalk was longer (or so it seems now), but she didn’t have steps which seemed like a win.
These human sidewalk sweepers told me that in the “old country” where none of them had ever lived, this was an important message to people passing by. A swept sidewalk was a welcome sign. They were teaching me a generational lesson that didn’t matter to me then but does now.
One day at Grandma Joy’s, after I finished sweeping, a lady, who was out for a stroll in a hat and gloves, walked up the now clean sidewalk and visited with Grandma. I felt a strange kind of pleasure rise in me. Had she felt the welcome of a swept sidewalk?
Since I wasn’t part of the conversation, that part of the memory is foggy. The good feeling faded the way it did when I wanted to be doing something else.
Grandma Joy told me that my Great Grandma Pearl swept the dirt floor of their sod house in South Dakota and the dirt path that led to the door. Sweeping was that important.
The “old country” thing still delights me. Was it a Norwegian thing? A Dutch thing? Or a German thing? Since those are the countries of my family’s origins, the answer is yes.
Mama was a faithful sidewalk sweeper, too but preferred to sweep her own. I was good with that.
Not long ago, on the sidewalk around our house, hundreds of maple seeds waited for me and my broom. (again – no exaggeration – our maple windbreak is a generous source of these little helicopter seeds) Since being married, sidewalk sweeping has been my responsibility for the most part. Since this is one of my walking spaces, I grabbed the broom, determined to rid the cement of the irritating mess of seeds.
Right away, I was in trouble. Arthritis in my hands and the costochondritis between my ribs flared. Stubborn woman that I am, I did what I could before propping the broom against the house in tears and heading inside.
My beloved Jonathan saw that the pain in my body was bad, but the inside ache of not being able to do this normal chore hurt just as much. He finished the job for me that day.
After Jonathan left for work, I grieved the losses that illness, fatigue, and pain bring. As it so often can, grief became energy. When this happened to Grandma Joy, she played the piano. Mama rearranged furniture. Grandma Pater went to the Ben Franklin in Spirit Lake, IA. (she lived in Lake Park, so it was a short drive. And fast because she believed in putting the pedal to the metal.)
The backdoor shut tightly behind me. I walked our sidewalk determined to figure out a solution. My steps felt like a stomp, but perhaps they could be called a march. 😊
Since then, I sweep each morning on my first circle around the house. Doing it every day like the women before me, I have far fewer seeds and other debris to remove, and my pain is far less. Those women knew stuff. And while it’s not fun, it’s an accomplishment. On harder days, I sweep as far as I can then get the rest the next day. I make sure the sidewalk to the front door is clear first.
Hard doesn’t mean impossible yet. And that’s a win for sure.
We don’t have people walking by our house out here other than our UPS and FedEx guys, but I hope they feel the welcome of a clean sidewalk. Those women I never met from the “old country” would be proud. So would the women born in “the new country” who taught me the value of sidewalk sweeping.
I kind of wish this appreciation had happened when I, as a girl bonking myself accidentally with the broom handle. Sort of. Some lessons are worth the wait.
Until Next Time,
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