Today is laundry day. I’m rich.
I have more clothes than I can wear in a month.
I have a wash machine. Push a couple buttons, it does it all. Gently, and without shredding thin the garments.
I have a dryer – not a rope that hangs among the trees in our backyard.
I have a dresser to put stacks of pants and PJs in, drawers that shut just nice, and a closet.
I have a bug and moth free home, most of the time:)
An indoor sink with plumbing (ashamed to say, but 5 of them).
Sweet tap water for drinking down.
Barefeet cool on hardwood while I fold towels, pile up the socks and shake the shirts.
I sometimes complain about laundry. And why?
As a kid, it was bags and bags to the laundromat.
The generation before that, Grandma used a wringer washer.
Before that, hours at a time, hands in boiling water, washed in tub and on the board.
Great Great Grandma Amanda lost her soldier husband Peter in the Civil War. She had two little girls Margaret and Melinda to raise, alone. Despite the kindness of the extended family, nothing could be done to provide Amanda and the girls an easy life. At first, Amanda was a single mom with two small children. I can’t imagine tackling the wash, let alone having to track down enough wood to keep her little family warm, pack the water alone, manage it all, and grieve. The 1860’s were hard. The 1860’s life was even harder as a single parent no matter how effective the latest wash powder.
It was wintertime. Amanda’s youngest, Melinda made her way toward school. Up the steps in through the door, she removed her wraps. She was a tiny 4th-grade girl. Her feet still cold from the walk, she took her seat and waited for the teacher. In the hustle of morning-time, somebody bumped the teacher’s desk, the kerosene lamp swayed and toppled to the floor, shattering into pieces. When the teacher returned, she went into a rage. Who had done it? The students pointed to Melinda. The teacher rushed at her, grabbed hair, pulled her to the floor and bashed her head against the metal shoe scraper that sat beside the door. Repeatedly smashing Melinda’s head, the teacher ripped out handfuls of her auburn hair. The attack caused Melinda to go to bed, and remain there for over a year. She had difficulty reading and learning.
Melinda’s Father, a good man, had helped his brother through college before the war. After Peter died, his brother, Uncle Charlie as the family called him, decided to give back to Peter’s girls what had been given to him. Amanda’s oldest Margaret went to live with her uncle and family. She was given an education through college. This was in a day when most men were unable to attend college, and rarely a woman. Melinda stayed home with her Mother and Stepfather and learned to be a housekeeper and cook. No telling the tole the brain injury had taken, and the opportunities lost. Her education had stopped with the 4th-grade thrashing.
I don’t know how Melinda managed her life as a woman. How had she washed clothes, baked before sunrise, and through the long hot days? Had she managed to wash from her spirit what the Civil War had taken? Had she let wash away the brutality of a monster teacher – enough to raise four daughters and send them off to school each day? A young bride’s fear of marriage, honeymoon night hid in darkness under bed, husband finding her and pulling her out? Had she been able to scrub hard against the shame of being simple when husband was smart and able, educated, Justice of the Peace, blacksmith, Sunday School teacher, ran the theater and performed Shakespeare? Oh, did I mention his handwriting looked like art?
Some stains run even deeper. What did it take to get up and do another day with the guilt she carried – she too had allowed their 16-year-old daughter Grace to attend an evening Vaudeville play at the downtown theatre – on way home was raped by No-Name Vaudeville actor – left pregnant – Melinda’s oldest daughter’s fiance and his brother late of night tracked down the No-Name, a murder, a body thrown into the swirling darkness of the Missouri. Vigilantes left town for months – just in case. Small town. Questions asked. It was too much for capable talented husband. He walked away, too. For good. Too much for their daughter Grace. She fled to places far from home, except for a visit 40-some years later. The Grace they knew never did return.
Melinda, alone in Brownville to provide for her daughters was offered a job by a family friend to be the hotel cook, feeding the men who came down the Missouri on steamboats. Single parenthood in those days meant poverty. Melinda’s youngest, Muriel, told how she owned one dress for ever’day, one dress for good. She and her sister Alice and their Mother Melinda lived above the hotel. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, no toilet, tub or sink, no wash machine, no buggy, bike or car, no bug spray, I could go on but you get the idea.
The childhood injury referred to in those days as brain fever, left Melinda tired much of the time. Despite her deficiencies, she was a very hard worker. She was remembered for working well past exhaustion, insisting that everything be tidy, making the following day a new start. She didn’t let the hard things that had happened to her harden her. Brownville though rural was not all small-town loveliness. Prostitutes provided services for the men who came through. The townsfolk wouldn’t speak to the girls or have anything to do with them. Great Grandma Melinda reached out, they lived just down the street from where she was. Knowing there was talk in town of her visits with them, she did not let that stop her. She took the girls food. When they became sick – as they often did, she would tend to them. I suppose she had learned that life can either stain you hateful ugly or shine you. Muriel once asked her “Momma, how did you keep going?” Melinda thought a minute and then said “When there’s something that has to be done, God gives you the strength”.
For Grandma Muriel, the Wringer Washer was a huge improvement but still required handling every item. Wash was scalded clean, sent through the ringer over and over, then hung on a line for the breeze to toss about and the sun to brighten. Years before, she washed on the board for ‘rich folks’ leaning heavy over the hot tub for hours, hands all-day-long in abrasive brine and boiling water… one of the many ways she managed to make a living for her and her four children as her husband was out staining up the world, and eventually abandoned the family to his carefree ways.
Laundry day for Mom with all it’s update conveniences was still exhausting. For a couple years there, she had three babies in cloth diapers and plastic pants. And no wash machine. I call my sisters and I the Irish triplets. 3 girls in 2 1/2 years. I can not imagine. Mom was a teacher and had to grade papers when she wasn’t at the school. As my sisters and I got older we’d work the laundry together.
For all the laundry days
for times this life has rung us out
for the swirling darkness
the abrasive cleansing
hung out to dry
for all to see
we take our form
and find our place once more
It’s laundry day,