Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wash

Graphite and watercolor pencil, in my Moleskine journal
From a photo taken at my sister-in-law's home in Door County, WI

The Everyday Matters sketching group has a different idea each week, and I submitted the idea "something that smells wonderful." Certainly there are lots of smells, scents, aromas: fresh morning coffee, baking bread, citrus, a freshly bathed baby, Chanel no.5, back yard lilacs and lily of the valley, freshly mown grass.

One wonderful scent that is mostly only a memory is the scent of sheets and towels dried outside in the sunshine. Mom did laundry the hard way for years. She had a Maytag wringer washer in the basement, and she stood down there with laundry baskets and a wooden pole. The pole was to pick up the heavy wet clothes out of the hot water and start them through the wringer. This was done twice, first for the wash cycle, then for the rinse. We didn't have an electric dryer until I was maybe in junior high. Before that, all the wet laundry was either dried outside on the clothesline or down in the basement.

We kids loved playing under the sheets hung outside to air dry. We'd let the fabric blow over our faces, or we'd make tents of the sheets on the line. Sometimes we'd play too hard, bringing the freshly laundered sheets down into the grass, earning a tongue lashing from my tired mother. Clean sheets were in danger also from whatever soil might be blowing in the wind, or from the fallout of birds who liked to perch on the ropes strung between wooden poles out our kitchen door.

Once the sheets were dry, bleached and deodorized by wind and sun, we'd help her fold them into a basket. It's hard to believe now, but she would iron the sheets. Around 1960 we inherited our grandparents' big laundry mangle, a huge machine that squatted for several years in our dining room. We learned to feed the machine the sheets, and then we'd have hot, perfectly flat bedding. What luxury! Eventually the mangle died, permanent press was introduced, and line dried, ironed sheets were history.

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed "Diogenes,
Diogenes," while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother. My job was stirring
the rinse. The troll hummed. Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue--

socks, aprons, Daddy's shirts, my brother's
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer


at the lake. Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around. The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out


flat as a dishrag. It grabbed Mother
once--rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new. This was a story
from Before. Still, I seemed to see it--
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye's. I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one. Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets. Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
"This way out!" There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up. Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who's that trit-

trotting...) and watch. Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams. Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row. Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek. Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging


line up high, to catch the wind. We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque. Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white. Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd. For a week

now, each day, we'd put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness. At night, best of all,
I'd see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.

2 comments:

Teri C said...

That painting is just stunningly beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In answer to an earlier question..I'm not sure we are over Brett yet. A wonderful era has come to the end. sigh.

Emma Pod said...

What a great post! This is a wonderful drawing of sheets on the line. And I liked your piece about the wringer washer. I used to help my Grandmother do wash in her basement - she had the three tubs and a wringer. It was always fun (and a little scary) to watch it work.