Of all the things I miss each year as the summer spills over into autumn, the one I hang on to the longest, and feel most wistful letting go, is laundry. More specifically, hanging clothes outside in the sun. The long days, the warm evenings, the flowers and vegetables as the season goes on? All of that is wonderful, but I can’t honestly say that I miss them much as the seasons change. I have always liked the coziness of the darkness, so I celebrate the return of the stars and the night sky. I like the crisp bite of the first frost in the air. But the clothesline? I miss that. I miss that a lot. Recently I’ve been asking myself why.
First, I think, it reminds me of my mom. She washed clothes every day that the sun shone, in every season, and hung them on the line in our backyard. In the winter, it was fun for us to bring in the towels, still frozen. When we were little, we’d take grandpa’s long underwear, frozen stiff from the line, and dance with it in the kitchen. Mom did that laundry in an old wringer washer that we were never allowed to use. She was afraid that something horrible would happen; that we’d be careless, or get caught in it somehow. As a result, I didn’t do my own laundry until I moved out to share an apartment at university. My friend had to show me how to use the washing machine.
So the clothesline reminds me of mom, that’s one thing. There’s an even deeper nostalgia though, in the neighbourhood rules about when and how to hang out the wash. Whose wash was hung out the earliest on Monday morning? It was always a friendly, but serious competition among the women. And the order of the items mattered. Smallest to largest, no exceptions. First, facecloths, then socks (always hung by the toes, and in their proper pairs), underwear (hung inside pillowcases for the more modest among us). Shirts were hung by the tails, never the collars, and so on. Take each item and give it a flick to eliminate wrinkles. Always the flick. There was an order to it all and I can’t help thinking now that it must have been one of the few things that a mother of several children could arrange neatly and have it remain so. A satisfying thing, to hang them out in a neat line and watch them flap in the breeze. Clean, orderly. Unlike the rest of life. I can understand that now more than ever.
For me now, it brings back those memories. But there’s more to it than that. I remember the spring that my husband died. In the weeks that followed, before the visitors went home, I used to do laundry often, taking it out to the line. The ritual and method of it was soothing and healing somehow. It was the one place I could go to think or cry, where people wouldn’t follow me to make sure I was ok. I had the cleanest clothes in town that year!
Now, it’s enough for me to simply know that I love doing laundry. The smell of line-dried sheets and towels, the feel of them against my skin, is a simple, readily available moment of delight in a world that sometimes offers little enough of those. Somehow, too, it seems a substantial, subversive kind of thing. Tapping into the wisdom of elders and to the Earth. A small act of connection, conservation and respect.
It simply makes sense to let the sun and the wind work their gentle magic. It’s an attitude about things; a carefulness; an age-old ritual that orders a crazy world, helps with the electricity bill, connects me to my senses, to my past, and maybe even the planet.