Thursday, January 16, 2020

Line Up

How many of you use a clothesline?  The crash pad I lived in after I sold my house and prior to my marriage had a washer/dryer built into a little closet but at home, a line is used, in the winter, set up across the laundry area. Yes, the clothes are a little stiffer and they often need the touch up of an iron, but it's surprising how much energy that drier uses.

I lived in a subdivision once and clotheslines weren't allowed, as only hooligans and hillbillies use them, you know. You couldn't even hang a beach towel off of your porch or paint your front door the color you wanted. I quickly moved away from the Stepford Subdivision, never to return.

A washer is a must.  Even as much as I love old machinery I have no desire to run my clothes through a wringer like Grandma Gullikson.  But to pull in a big batch of sheets from the line, kissed by the sun with the warm scent of summer on them, there is no fabric softener scent that can match that. There's something quietly satisfying about taking things that are dirty, the clothing of the people you love, and rendering them clean, a ritual of care that feminists would probably vilify me for actually liking. But holding the clothing of someone you love, something that bears their scent, their labors, and then carefully getting it ready for them to wear again, has an intimacy of its own.
Growing up, we always had a dryer, the avocado green Maytag one. But in the spring and summer, Mom always hung the clothes outside  I have vivid memories of those days. I would help gather the clothes in, that being one of my set chores. For we had assigned chores as children, daily ones that had to be done without fussing if we hoped to get an allowance to buy us a bit of candy on Saturday. No chores, no allowance, that became obvious early. We were given things to do that were in the scope of our abilities and some that were beyond, with supervision only when necessary, so that we would learn, painfully if we didn't listen, but learn nonetheless.

The clothes would hang, with the linens, dresses and dress shirts, the modest nightwear, the men's briefs and big "Granny panties" that we wore, ones that did not peak out of low slung jeans but only the Sears Catalog. There was our Sunday best, to be appropriately scratchy for young ones in the pew to squirm around as Father Erickson talked of Genesis and Exodus and fathers therein who dared talk face to face with God.
On laundry day when the clothes were off the line inside and sorted, Mom would set up the ironing board in front of the TV.  There she would watch As the World Turns, The Secret Storm or Guiding Light while she ironed and I put together the puzzles that fascinated me, Big bro, off at school. Dad still has, to this day, a jigsaw puzzle of bears on the coffee table that was purchased for Big Bro, not that it stopped me from putting it together time and time again until the edges were worn.

While I played, Mom would iron everything, including the sheets, from the hand-embroidered ones of the '50s to the harvest gold striped ones from the late '60s and '70s. She'd use a wine bottle that had a cap that allowed for water to be sprinkled out in lieu of a steam iron as if subtly blessing the sheets. There was almost a zen-like ritual to it, much as I feel when I reload, a series of defined movements, done in proper order with the right amount of physical force and the elements that comprise the process.
Then she would get the after school snack out and dinner prepped, giving her just enough time to freshen up and make a martini to greet my Dad at the door when he got home. Lest you think my Mom a demure Mrs. Cleaver type, prior to adopting us, when she wasn't doing laundry she was the County Sheriff.  College-educated when most women didn't get past high school, Mom could kick keester and take names, help pluck out a drowning victim from the river and deal with the trauma that was rape, domestic violence and abuse. 

I'm sure she missed the challenges, but after 18 years as an LEO, she found greater satisfaction in maintaining order in a house of redheads and occasionally fishing someone's toy out of the toilet. Everything she did, she did with care and attention to detail, even after she got so sick, her days filled with weariness and, I suspect, pain.
I still remember the days when Mom washed my stuffed animals and carefully hung them up by the ears on the clothesline, giving each one a little kiss and a pat while I watched to make sure they were OK. One of them had no eyes, and little fur, he being loved so hard, but she very carefully hung him up by the ears with a special kiss.  I thought he had disappeared, but when she was in her last days, and I was leaping into adulthood, she put him away where I'd find him again when I was grown, and remember those days.

I remember her as well, dealing with Big Bro's and Dad's filthy and smelly fishing garb, simply smiling a patient smile and handling them as delicately as vestments.  She worked away, a patient smile on her face, the birds on the lines and in the trees,  singing a hymn of praise as she labored for love.

While the clothes fluttered on the summer line like the last valiant leaves of the year, we'd run and play.  If we fell down, we got up, if we skinned a knee, we washed it off with the hose, running in and out of the hanging sheets, bright red heads flashing in and through them like birds. We did so with a zest for breathing that is wrung out of most people by the time they're 40, playing as if we were eternal and in that moment, we were, there in the open clean air, away from the walls of dust and shadow and sickness.
We played hide and seek and cowboy and Indians. We stalked squirrels and each other with nothing more than a plastic weapon and iron courage.  Our games had elements of make-believe, of magic and superpowers, soldier, secret agents, and spies. But we weren't so sheltered from the world that we were unaware that to be careless with the tools and talents we were given, was to meet up with a beast that, though lightly slumbering, sleeps with breath tainted with blood. As we grew, we watched as deer fell in the woods under our guns, a firearm is more than a toy to play cops and robbers with, but the means of putting food on the table, a means to protect, one that came with heavy responsibility.

We understood early one, that some things do NOT wash out.

The clothesline eventually came down. I don't recall when actually. It was about the time Big Bro went off to the Navy, to submarine school.  I wanted to go with him, we did everything together, but I had a  few years of school left. All I could do was stand there as a line that no longer held his shirts stood like a barren flag pole and the vehicle in which we'd had so many adventures, drove off towards his future.  I watched as long and as hard as I could, thinking that old blue panel van would turn around.  But the red tail lights just got further away and closer and closer together until my last memory was a small single spot of red that made my eyes weep as if I had dared to stare into the sun.
Things change, processes evolve, how we live and where we live. But some things, the good things, can continue and I don't care if they are considered "tacky" or "old fashioned", they are a ritual of love that goes beyond blood and care that goes beyond the obligation.  Like my clothesline. The clothes are different, there's more t-shirts than dresses, a lot of khaki and navy and black. Some of the shirts have pictures, some just have big letters on them. There's the plaid flannel nighty for when it's really cold but most of the underthings, if made of paper, not fabric, wouldn't be big enough to start a fire with. Styles change, but some rituals don't.

As I hang up a button-down dress shirt, I think back to those days of my childhood, as my Mom did the same things for those she loved. As I work, I talk face to face with God as He helps me with the biggest puzzles of all.  As the wind flutters through the fabric, around me come the sound of birds, perched on lines of their own, rejoicing without fail, their ceaseless, silver voices singing as if they are eternal, and for this moment may very well be. - LBJ


  1. This brought back so many great memories. I still have a clothesline used mostly for sheets and linens and wonderful smells I can't get from a bottle.

  2. These memories are precious. We had a clothes line too. There was something special about air dried clothes. We don't have one any more. I miss it.

  3. Momma says the only time she uses a washline is to hang her wet swimsuit up on a trip. I've never even seen one, but it sounds fun to chase!

  4. My ghostwriter says she remembers when everything was dried on the clothes line. When the clothes line was not in use, she and her siblings hung some old curtains on it and made a tent. We still have a clothes line in my back yard. Most of the year, the birdie feeders hang from the lines. But in summer there's nothing nicer than fresh bed sheets that were hung outside to dry!

  5. Enjoyed reading your clothes line of memories!

  6. Thank you for your clothes line memories. I still hang my laundry outside!

  7. There is something so seminal and charming about line dried wash. Love the smell of fresh sheets that have been lined dried.


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