Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

11 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

  1. Cynthia, I too, remember our dank basement with open stairs and my father’s waist high fishing boots with shoulder straps hanging behind the stairs – a boogy man in waiting! And the first washer was but a tub, and water emptied out into an open (smelly!) hole in the cement floor – ooh! Basements were a bit scary but delightfully cool on hot humid Michigan summer days. Clotheslines! Yes, we, too helped our mother hang clothes and loved taking them down, sun drenched and warm. Thanks for the memories!

  2. My mother, too, did laundry in the basement and was afraid of the stairs. She was traumatized, it seems. As a result, she had the washer and dryer removed from my childhood home and I went with her to the laundromat once a week. My step-grandmother, who lived in the house we live in now, had a complete hand laundry in a building just across the way, and I recall her tubs and mangles and how she pinned sheets on long lines in back. My husband does do the laundry, though it took me more than a decade to get him to separate colors (pink underwear twice!) and even longer to convince him to read washing labels. He now does a better job than I ever did.

    1. Oh, gosh, that must have been a bit tough on her. Basements can be seem dreary–the older ones, anyway.Very interesting re: the other set up of your stepmother’s! Lovely husband! Marc is haphazard often, so no thanks! (Mine cooks, thank goodness!)

    1. Ananda, what a lovely thing to say- thank you. Yes, ordinary occurrences are important to celebrate, not only dramatic experiences as I am sure you agree. I believe those are what create a good quality of life. Life is full of fascination and interest–how fortunate we are, even in the midst of hard times.

    1. Many thanks, Derrick. A magle….yes, that would be it–what a name for it!. Appropriate re: how it injured my brother’s arm. I have to say, though, that he became a bodybuilder as a young man, an ace billiards player in university, became a psychologist and then a full time and well known jazz musician in the NW, playing woodwinds, primarily. So all ended up well despite the accident! 🙂

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