Thursday, March 2, 2017

Women's Work Memories--Doing the Laundry

                A Master Passion   ISBN: 1771456744

A few things have changed for women, if not all that much on the rights side--we seem to be going backwards at the moment--however, in the material world, the traditional hard work of housekeeping has grown much easier. Laundry is one of those revolutionized tasks. Still, like cleaning the toilet, another traditionally designated woman’s work, I'd thought I'd share some memories about some of the things I've seen during my own 70+ years of life. 

I wonder how many of you can also look back on these same changes, or if you have some unique stories of your own. I’m going to move through time—my little slice of it--regarding laundry day.

The first laundry days I remember was at Grandpa’s house where we took our clothes for a familial Saturday wash, because they had a machine, a rockin’ and rollin’ wringer washer in the basement. Running the wet clothes through the wringer was men’s work in my family, although the women did the rest: pre-sort, load, hang, fold, dry, and iron. (Remember ironing? The day devoted to the task, taking the clothes out of the hamper and dampening them with a spritz or a sprinkle—the ones from a little top you bought at the Five and Dime to attach to the top of a coke bottle? The back ache/neck crick from standing for hours with a moving extended arm, the pre-air conditioning summer heat?)

And, of course, for small children, there were dire, but necessary, warnings.

Beware the dreaded wringer in which careless children get their arms caught and broken and maybe even dragged in and squished to death!  And don’t forget; the release bar to open the jaws is along the top, so…!

In the early Sixties, life took my mother and me to Barbados in the West Indies. It was not the shiny tourist trap it is now. At one time, we lived in the countryside which meant in a big temporarily for rent house—the “Bajan” owners were in the UK, attending to some business there. The big white house with louvered windows stood in a grove of large trees surrounded by what seemed to be almost endless cane fields. A maid from a cluster of houses further down the road, came along with the rent—that is, mother paid her the going rate to stay on with us and do laundry and some weekly housework, so that she would be support in the regular owner’s prolonged absence.

It was a long bus ride from Bridgetown where my school was, and in the evening, when I got home, I’d enter a small lane that had a bridge over a steep-sided, fast moving creek. Down below, among the rocks, local women always seemed to be doing laundry. Many small children, wearing undershirts and nothing else, crouched and played in the water, like little kids everywhere. Here, sometimes, I’d see Elsie, who worked for us, banging a piece of clothing I’d recognize as mine, on a rock as if it had done some terrible crime and needed punishment. First she’d scrub up lather from a big cake of Fels Naphtha soap which she kept beside her balanced on a rock. Next, she’d pound, and last she’d rinse it out in the stream. When I saw that laundry method for the first time, I came to fully appreciate the high tech of the chugging basement wringer washer at Grandpa’s.

Later, after coming back to the US, entering college and getting married—all in quick time order—my husband, new baby and I lived in an apartment building which rented to married students. It was a spacious old side by side duplex, now split into four apartments. I worked part time--part time school--in order to afford my first washing machine, a long-lived trendy bronze color Sears Kenmore top loader. Wet wash was hung from the back porch on a super long reel line. 

The kindly owner of our building had set lines up for both upstairs and downstairs apartments, although the tenants overhead had to hang their laundry while leaning out a window. As this was Massachusetts, sometimes it was too wet or too snowy or cold, so we all had drying racks for such occasions. As everyone knows, with babies, there is always a lot of laundry. And with diapers, it’s best to hang them out, even if they freeze for a day or so. 

As the old saying goes, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” even if it’s 10 below...or in the 21st Century.   

~~Juliet Waldron    Historical Novels by JW at Amazon  A Master Passion   ISBN: 1771456744