The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 15, 2006

Autobio in Laundry

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:08 am

Reading about the way the wash was done in 1850, the way it was done before mechanization, the way it was done a century ago or less, is reading autobiography—ancestral autobiography.

I knew my washerwoman grandma Jennie, my mother’s mother, though she was long retired when I was born. I have these long fingers and strong hands, a long strong back, too. Oddly, too, I have a love of water: the sea, the chlorinated pool, the scenic river, the frozen pond, the Olympic rink. I lived five years in a cottage on the property of my grandmother, on the land given her by her employers, in the vicinity where she had washed for a living. There was a washtub in the shed, galvanized, in which I was bathed. (Our cottage lacked a bathtub and shower.) The tub looked huge to me then, a toddler, but probably it was regulation size.

My mother didn’t use it for its intended purpose, of course. She took our clothes to the Laundromat. Outside my grandma’s house, next door but quite a distance away, perhaps a full lot’s width, there was a clothesline, the kind on a pulley, and sometimes I’d see clothes hanging, sheets and other big flapping panels of cloth. I wanted to play there, but my mother kept me away. It was forbidden to go near the laundry drying. But I was fascinated by the mechanism, the way the clothes floated away when a big person yanked on the other line.

In our next house, there was a Whirlpool in the kitchen. But our wash always dried outside, on a collapsible laundry rack mounted in the sunny part of the back yard. (I don’t think they sell these anymore: it’s like a beach umbrella, but with plastic clothesline strung on parallel ribs.) Just like generations of washerwomen, my mother washed when the weather promised sun: the last stage of laundry.

Many people like to hang their clothes out even now. My back neighbor has a long clothesline, and she dries shirts and towels. Not everything: I don’t see her undies, for example. She likes the smell, she wants the airing out, she enjoys the merry sight of a rainbow of clothes swaying in the breeze.

Me: I’m a machine gal. This isn’t just personality, though. It’s an action-reaction phenomenon.

For I had my stint as a laundress. As a young girl, after my mother died, I had to do the wash, my own, my sister’s, my dad’s. It wasn’t a massive amount of clothing, but it was a different time. School clothes meant skirts and blouses, slips and stockings; you changed after school to pants and shirts. My dad wore work clothes: flannel shirts, typically, and rough gray work pants. He used handkerchiefs, big white squares of cotton that came home smeared and clogged with gunk. Everything was cotton or wool, with the occasional nylon blouse or undergarment. Everything dried wrinkled, crinkled, crumpled and matted: today’s wash-and-wear, shake-out-, smooth-, hang-up-and-wear, jersey-knit wouldn’t be on the market for decades.

You didn’t realize someday laundry would be simply mindless: toss stuff in a hole, press go, hoist to the dryer, press go. When dressing, open the door, rummage, shake, and wear.

Back then, I did pretty much the same to start: put the laundry in the Whirlpool, poured in the blue Cheer powder, set the dial, and listened for the buzzer. For socks and undershirts, you added liquid bleach. There was blueing in the house; my dad said, throw it away—he had no appreciation for antiques.

My mother had had the washer put in the kitchen, so that she wouldn’t have to haul laundry up and down stairs. And she would do her work in the sun, on the main floor, not in some dank cellar, out of view, and she could see her children in the back yard playing.

But there was no dryer. For one thing, it wouldn’t fit in the kitchen. For another, a dryer was expensive, much more so than a washer, and it used too much power. Air was free.

My mother had her own modern tricks for the timeless ritual of line-drying. The basket was plastic, light as lightweight could be. It was yellow, painfully cheerful, and deep to minimize trips. The collapsible clothes line meant no walking or yanking or hauling the basket along.

The wooden pins waited on the line for the next parade of garments, instead of stowed in a bag. My mother had shown me how to use one pin between each two items: less reaching for pins, faster overall. She taught me to hang the shirts upside down, to put the big stuff on the inner lines and the smaller on the outer so the breeze would flow through.
When she was gone, I learned more:

Cold wet clothing, twisted into a thick rope from the rinse cycle, whatever the era, still weighs like a rock and warps a cheap basket.

You can’t hang a load of laundry quick enough for your arms not to ache, for your neck not to cramp, for your hands not to wrinkle like raisins, for your fingers not to numb.

You can’t be a girl thirteen hanging laundry in your own backyard without a faceful of red shame.

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