When I was a little girl growing up in New York City, I was fascinated by flip flapping of sheets, blouses, shirts, towels, overalls and underwear taking sail on the wind between buildings. Sometimes I happened on the scene at the very moment that a satisfied-looking woman leaned out of her kitchen window, reeling out her line on a winch. There would be another winch attached to the building across the way, and a peculiarly melodic sound would resonate as the ropes passed through them, like a jazzy riff on a creaky clarinet.
I always considered those long lines of sheets and shirts a miracle of hominess expressing something going on in those apartments that I had always yearned for. My own mother, poor soul, hadn’t a clue about how to do laundry. She had been raised with maids and cooks and, undoubtedly, laundresses, but found herself downwardly mobile, raising two children in a tiny apartment on one of those narrow New York Streets, wondering where all the maids had disappeared to. She did the best she could with a bar of fels naptha in the bathroom sink, but I sensed in those triumphantly flapping lines of radiantly clean laundry something permanently beyond my reach.
A couple of years ago my brother and I compared notes about this, remembering how stiff our underwear had always been and how we had itched all over because the soap was never rinsed out entirely. Besides, our little underpants were dried on top of the radiators and always turned out stiff as boards.
He had been married to a wonderful young woman for a while when I first went to visit them in their new home. We were drinking coffee in their kitchen as my sister-in-law took the laundry out of a washing machine that stood within easy reach of the sink and stove.
“Can I help you,” I asked, awed by the orderliness of her arrangements. As we stood side by side, folding each piece just so, I couldn’t believe how soft their towels and sheets felt in my hands. Was this some kind of miracle!
“How did they get this way?”
My brother laughed sympathetically.
“Isn’t it wonderful! She uses something called softener!”
They have been a devoted couple, head over heels in love with each other for more than fifty years now. At that time in my (itchy) life, nonetheless, I would have married her myself for the way she did the laundry.
My father’s horror when he offered me a baby gift and I asked for a washing machine suggests that our childhood laundry sufferings derived as much from class haughtiness as mother’s ineptitude. Reluctantly, he paid for a gleaming white object from Sears and had it delivered to our first home, a little stone cottage on a college campus. It had a fenced in laundry yard where I set up an umbrella-style contraption with four layers of lines to pull my laundry towards me and push it away again. They hadn’t invented disposables yet, but I bought a bottle of softener and had lovely times hanging row after row of fragrant cloth diapers, receiving blankets, little shirts and sweaters out to dry in the New England sunshine.
You don’t see washing flapping between buildings in New York any more, and I am aware that my childhood fascination with it was naïve given the endless drudgery of tenement life in those days. In my wanderings around museums and galleries, however, I have discovered that there are any number of artists inspired by laundry.
Martin Lewis’s print of an emaciated housewife weakly clasping her clothes line, having reeled it right into a glowering dusk, expresses the toil and exhaustion from all that heavy washing. Every time I happen upon his depictions of New York in the twenties and thirties I gasp with recognition. In my memory, my childhood seems to have taken place in black and white rather than in color, and his New York noir is dappled with light and shadow just like mine.
But then there is Egon Schiele’s cityscape of a European city from much earlier in the century, “Houses With Colorful Laundry”
Though the houses are bleak and the sky looming over them ominous, someone has strung up their washing with orderly devotion, like Tibetan prayer flags.
When we moved into our present home in a Detroit suburb, I noticed that there was a hook for a laundry line on the maple tree and that I could run a laundry line to a pole discreetly concealed behind some lilacs. As a writer who sets her own schedule, I have always found it helpful to allot chores to their traditional days of the week — yard chores and household repairs on Saturdays, for example, and laundry on Mondays (I observe the Sabbath by turning off my computer). I hoped that my neighbors, who were evidently upwardly mobile, would not feel demeaned if I hung out my washing; keeping it to Mondays seemed to insure their toleration.
When I would arrive home with my brain fried and my nerves frazzled after a semester of teaching, I loved those first warm days of June when I could hang out my wash in my yard. I would lovingly fasten each corner to my line with wooden clothes pins, bury my nose in the fragrance of sun warmed sheets and pillowcases, and discreetly arrange my softened and now capacious underpants among the lilacs, blissfully reciting Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” to myself:
“Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”