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The urge toward spring cleaning is a natural phenomenon, a visceral response to being cooped up all winter with growing mounds of stuff. Come April every year, I feel as though the clutter inside is beginning to stalk and strangle me, and I yearn for bare, clean surfaces. The laundry baskets in the upstairs hallway look as if they are reproducing and spitting out socks -- my own "little shop of horrors."

But in spite of best efforts, every year the clutter returns. It seems my family has a proclivity toward bundles, stacks and piles of junk I just can't get rid of, no matter how hard I try.

When my ex-husband and I first divorced, and he set up housekeeping a few blocks away, one of my sons commented thoughtfully on the difference in our styles. "Dad's house is so neat," he said, raising my defenses. He looked at my face and quickly added. "But I like your house, mom. I like having lots of junk."

In the hallway, next to the front door, a basket of unanswered Christmas cards gathers dust atop the cedar chest. During spring cleaning time, every year, I wrap the bundle of cards in a rubber band and place them in the box with the Christmas wrapping paper up in the attic -- the theory being that when December comes, I'll send these people cards. Presently, there are three years worth of cards bundled in that box, and so far, none of them have been answered or thrown away. They just sit there year after year, compiling guilt.

Every spring I try to sift through the accumulation of junk atop my kids' bookshelves and find fascinating things to throw away. Piles of play money, foreign currency, cut-out comic strips, telephone numbers jotted on strips of paper, school papers folded into tiny squares, miniscule plastic model pieces -- all, I'm told, are indispensable. In one kid's room, a glass bottle filled with a caramel-colored liquid has not been moved in two years because everyone is afraid to touch it. I'm told it is a mixture of all the leftovers from an old chemistry set, so I don't dare dispense of it for fear of poisoning the city's water supply.

As I attack the growing detritus of my household, I usually come to accept that this is simply my family's idiocyncratic style of housekeeping, and it will likely never change. I have known others as eccentric as ours, in truth, and that gives me comfort.

My mother's cousin Ernestine, for instance. When I was growing up, hers was one of my favorite houses. She had an entire bedroom filled with shoes, handbags and clothes, all arranged on racks, many with the sales tags still attached. Her huge sunken living room was beautifully furnished with a mix of antique furniture and new showroom pieces, and she was always putting down new carpet.

One year when we visited, she had bought a full-length white leather recliner that vibrated. And every time we visited, she had accumulated a cumbersome new piece of exercise equipment and placed it smack dab in the middle of the living room. One year she bought an exercise bike; another year, the living room was enhanced by one of those big, motorized platforms with a vibrating belt that was supposed to shake off the fat. Ernestine's various pieces of equipment made a lot of noise and took up a lot of room, and they were always displayed prominently and out of place, in the house's most formal room.

A friend recently told me about the time his house guests decided to clean his house for him as a surprise. For eight years, he had watched and protected a huge spider web that stretched across the corner of his kitchen, witnessing the life cycle there, the capture and dismembering of other insects, the intricate architectural process of the building of the web. In their zeal to clean, his out-of-town guests sucked the web up into a vacuum cleaner, thinking they were doing him a favor, and ended up on the receiving end of his extreme outrage instead.

My style of housekeeping demands that certain objects be kept where they are, no matter how ill placed or junky they may seem at the height of my spring-cleaning fever. The big, black trash bag stuffed with snow gear in my bedroom will give way to the necessities of summer -- shin guards, elbow pads, wading shoes, shorts, all within sight and easy arm's reach, piled in the chair designated for that purpose.

I'll just dust the piles, weed through them a little and try to make room for next year's accumulation, and call it spring cleaning.

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