My friends often wondered what the strange piece of playground equipment was in the center of my postage stamp backyard. In the center it had a pole that supported rows of nylon rope, forming four concentric squares.
“It’s a dryer, silly,” I told them, not realizing that I seemed the silly one.
No matter, we could use it as base in a game of tag, or as a maypole as we held on and marched round and round. But that was only as long as it wasn’t laundry day. On laundry days my mother emerged up the short set of grey concrete steps, with a heavy plastic laundry basket filled with wet clothes, past the tomato and hydrangea plants so lovingly planted. She deftly shook out the pieces of clothing and linens and hung each one carefully over the lines, securing them with clothespins. Socks and underwear got the inner ropes, while white sheets, quilt covers and damask tablecloths got the outer ones. As the sun shone, the pieces dried, only to be piled back into the basket and brought inside to be ironed.
My mother ironed everything, including pajamas, daddy’s boxers, and our cotton white panties. The kitchen counter did double duty as an ironing board, with a towel spread upon it, each piece of clothing quickly pressed and folded, then put in piles awaiting the trip to our drawers. The steam iron mixed with starch released a smell reminiscent of baking bread as it passed over the wrinkled collars and seams transforming them into stiff, perfect expanses. On rainy days, clothing was snatched off the outside dryer to be laid out on indoor dryers, folding contraptions made up of fifteen or so dowels, which often collapsed under the weight of our clothing. Little did I know that there was actually an electrical appliance called a dryer. I was introduced to one, standing like a fraternal twin next to the washing machine in my friend’s house and was amazed at the ease with which the her mom did laundry. As Lisa played with her Suzy Homemaker oven, I was more intrigued to watch her mom Bernice pull out a pile of wet clothes from the washing machine, throw them in a dryer, push a button and walk away. It was even more wondrous to see the clothes emerge forty minutes later, dry, warm and toasty, ready to be folded.
“Why don’t we get a dryer, Mommy?” I asked.
“We have a dryer, mamaleh. You think we need another one?”
“Not another one, Mommy, an electric one that dries the clothes.”
“But why would I want that? The clothes smell so good from outside, and anyway where would we put it?”
It was a question I didn’t understand.
“Next to the washing machine, of course. All we need to do is get rid of that old black sewing machine, and plug it in.”
I didn’t yet understand about venting, and electrical lines, and why it would be so difficult in our small row house with the rental basement. I wanted to drag my parents out of their European greenhorn ways into the avocado green and harvest gold yellow of the American 1970’s. I wanted my house to smell and look and sound like the others, and a dryer was a step in the right direction.
I had an almost primal love of all things connected to laundry. I loved the aroma of the cleaning fluids, probably toxic, at the dry cleaners, and the scent of starch from the Chinese laundry. My father’s dress shirts and our real linen tablecloths were sent out to the Chinaman, and when you picked them up they were wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Some of the more delicate linens were not trusted to anyone else. My mother would spray them with starch, roll them up and place them in the refrigerator. Hours later, she would heat up the iron and both gently and firmly press all the folds and creases, sprinkling them with lavender scented water as she worked. Although this was a labor of love, as was all the painstaking work done by my mother so we appeared presentable to the world, for me it was the tell tale puffs of steam arising from the coiled hose of our neighbor’s dryer, that were a sure sign of a warm and cozy family.
This fascination with laundry followed me. When my summer camp asked for volunteers to do our division’s laundry at the Laundromat, my hand shot up. Sure, I was happy to spend the day in town, in civilization, but I was also excited to be in that warm soapy environment with the cavernous machines. In college, I started my own version of “Pay-it-forward”. If I had to move someone’s clothing out of a washer, I would put it in a dryer and start the machine. If I had to dump someone’s stuff out of a dryer, I folded it. Sure it was a nice thing to do, but I also loved folding the almost too hot to touch denim skirts and pairing the socks.
As dorm life morphed into married life, my husband and I spent the first few years of our marriage figuring out the division of labor in our growing household. He did most of the paperwork, always took out the garbage, and did the bulk of our grocery shopping. I did all the meal preparation, most of the house cleaning and all of the clothes shopping. We shared child care from diapers to baths, dressing in the morning and stories at night. At first we shared laundry duty. In our small apartment with a tiny portable machine, I washed the clothes and hung out the wet laundry, he folded and put it all away. But as our family grew, and we moved to a home I slowly took over all laundry responsibilities. It seemed that only I could tell the difference between my son’s socks and my daughter’s, only I knew which stretchy had a stain that needed to be tended to before it was set by the heat of the dryer, and only I knew which items could be washed in the machine even if the label said, hand wash only.
My mastery over the laundry became my badge of honor and competence. My children’s neat and pressed appearance was all thanks to me. The fact that clothes could be handed down from one child to the next was testament to my great abilities.
As the household got busier with more carpools and activities, I often found myself procrastinating before starting a task, overwhelmed by the huge lists I accrued. There was the list on the refrigerator, the one on my palm pilot, the one by my night table, the post-its of emergency tasks tacked to the bathroom mirror and the list in my head never committed to paper. Did I really want to reorganize the linen closet so I could see what had to be bought for camp? Did I have to clean out the garage in order to figure out what sports equipment we needed this spring? Would it really free up space in the den drawers if I reorganized the photo albums? Every time I found myself with a few hours of empty time, perfect for starting one of these projects, I first checked the status of the laundry. In spite of the fact clean clothes never stay that way for long, I continued to find great comfort and solace in the various steps of doing the laundry. First separating the four or five hampers worth of clothes into whites, lights and darks, towels, linens and permanent press, and then watching the piles of disarray diminish as I washed each load. The crowning achievement was creating neat and orderly piles of each person’s clothing. See I could make order out of chaos! Other projects may not have been completed satisfactorily, but I was always competent in the laundry room. My children were never the ones yelling “Ima, do I have any clean underwear?” They knew they could always depend on the drawer full of warm socks.
There were other benefits to doing laundry. Between the whoosh of the water and the clanging of the dryer, it was hard to hear the other noises in the house. Down in the basement, my cave as it was dubbed, I could be very busy and excused for ignoring whatever was going on beyond. Since the laundry didn’t require much concentration, laundry time became my private time to think, my thoughts meandering as I handled my children’s shirts and pants, our sheets and tablecloths. The clothing often told me information that the children did not. Paint on a shirt cuff let me know that my 10 year old did a special mother’s day project in school, an unfamiliar t-shirt let me know my daughter started the teenage phase of swapping clothes, and an extra button down shirt might clue me in that my son dressed nicely before that camp meeting, could it be because of one of the girl counselors? A stretched sweater cuff or a few blood spots may belie a playground tussle.
Sometimes laundry time became my time for religious introspection. During the High Holy days, as I worked on an ink stain on a white t-shirt, I thought about how my misdeeds are like that stain. I might be a pretty good person most of the time, but that little blue blotch does ruin the perfection of the shirt. As I attempted to scrub and scratch and applied different concoctions to remove it, I thought of how hard it is to undo bad habits and bad deeds. And no matter how it emerged, with the stain completely gone, or with a bare trace of it slightly noticeable, it was food for thought about the repentance process.
As they headed into their teenage years, my children and I had an unspoken agreement that secrets revealed through laundry would never be mentioned, but unmentioned did not mean unnoticed. Rather than have them launder their clothes on their own, I continued to do their laundry with some nod to going green and saving energy, but really because as they separated further and further from me, their laundry remained my tactile very sensual connection to them. They would lug back a bagful on their weekends home from college, and my mood soared. Not only were they home, back in the nest, but they still needed me. My daughter pointed out little spots and stains on her favorite outfits, so I could be sure to get them out, testament to my role as the wise and sage parent. Her friend dubbed me the laundry goddess, and her boyfriend began to ask me laundry advice. At the end of each trip home, their clothing was always ready, in neat piles, mommy as caretaker all wrapped up in a laundry bag.
The last few years our family has shifted into a new phase, as two of my children have gotten married. In the weeks before the weddings, I made sure my children had a constant stream of clean clothes, as they readied themselves for each pre-celebration event. My son and I picked through his t-shirts and boxers throwing out the ratty ones, mending buttons on shirts, making sure to replace socks with holes. My daughter watched over my shoulder as I taught her how to wash delicates and sweaters, laying them flat, ready for the suitcases as she moved into her apartment. Again, without discussion, we all agreed that once married, it would be inappropriate for me to do their laundry. And then came that final load of laundry, in the few days after the most recent wedding, my son’s, as his last pair of pajamas cycled through the hampers and I realized this was it. Although I had a lump in my throat at times during the wedding, the tears flowed down in the privacy of my cave as I folded and organized the end bits of clothing he would ever put in the family hampers. Sure, they may ask me to shift their clothes from washer to dryer on a visit home, and there might even be a few stretchys and booties to lovingly wash at some point in the future, but the day to day caring and nurturing of my babies where I could be enveloped by their touch, their smell, their mess had to end.
There is more room than there used to be on the long, green folding table in the laundry room, with about half as many loads to do as there were just a year ago. Between my youngest son’s pile of chinos and my pile of colorful t-shirts there is a gap that stands out like a child’s missing front tooth. But now, on visits home to that little row house of my childhood, I notice the stains on my mother’s pillowcases and tablecloths that her eyes no longer see. After I fill pillboxes of medications for the coming weeks, I sneak a load of laundry down to the basement to the ancient washing machine under the stairs. As I gingerly hang the few pieces of clothing on the wooden dryer, I am transported, knowing that I am still needed.