Line-Dried Laundry: Folded Sunshine

July 10, 2013

Line-drying the laundry

Line-drying the laundry

Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, described line-dried laundry as “folded sunshine.”  Isn’t that an apt metaphor!  My Dad still does his weekly Monday laundry the old-fashioned way.  He uses the old wringer Maytag in the dank basement.  Then hangs his wash out on a line to dry in the summer sun and breeze.  Folded sunshine indeed!

Maytag in the basement

Maytag in the basement

My dad hanging out the clothes

My dad hanging out the clothes

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

We didn’t call it “laundry” back in the day; we called it “the wash.”  The following poem could have been written by a ghostly twin, so true are the images to my memories of wash days:

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed “Diogenes,
Diogenes,” while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother.  My job was stirring
the rinse.  The troll hummed.  Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue–

socks, aprons, Daddy’s shirts, my brother’s
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer

at the lake.  Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around.  The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag.  It grabbed Mother
once–rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new.  This was a story
from Before.  Still, I seemed to see it–
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye’s.  I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one.  Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets.  Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
“This way out!”  There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up.  Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who’s that trit-

trotting…) and watch.  Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams.  Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row.  Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek.  Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging

line up high, to catch the wind.  We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque.  Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white.  Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd.  For a week

now, each day, we’d put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness.  At night, best of all,
I’d see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.


14 Responses to “Line-Dried Laundry: Folded Sunshine”

  1. Sandy bessingpas Says:

    THE WASH is the perfect description of how is was done when we were kids.

  2. Mary Heath Says:

    Another lovely entry and the poem brings back those days under the clothesline, being taught by my mother how to hang everything properly! Thanks, Mary

    • Rosemary Says:

      My mother also had very specific ways of hanging the clothes and knew where she wanted things on the lines. The sheets and pants were always hung closest to the clothesline posts so that they would not drag on the ground after the lines became weighted with the full loads of the day’s laundry. The little socks and underwear could hand in the sagging middle of the lines.

  3. camilla wells paynter Says:

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 🙂 Even your Dad’s clothespins are antiques! His generation has much to teach our “disposable society.” Poem and photos are delightful! Thanks!

  4. Janet Foss Says:

    I loved the smell when I ran past the laundry while playing as a kid and never a better sleep than line dried laundry, and yet so many covenants don’t allow a clothes line, to never sleep in a bed with bedding that was hung outside to dry, so sad.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Oh yes. I remember running past the towels and sheets and pillow cases, and running my hand along them. Like running in a tunnel between the lines of hanging clothes.

  5. Judy Says:

    That looks like the kind of Michigan Basement we had–and the same wringer washer. I always hung the laundry in a special way. All underwear together, all shirts, pants near the brace poles–nothing better then sliding into bed at night with those fresh, sunshiny smelling sheets!!!

  6. Carol Says:

    This brings back vivid memories of summers spent on my grandmother’s farm. She also had a wringer machine and used either Tide or Duz. Those sun dried, low thread count sheets smelled wonderful and were hard as boards when I slipped between them. To this day I don’t bother buying luxury sheets; I know they will be too soft for my taste. A bonus was Grandma made me dolls out of the clothespins.

  7. I love this poem and the photographs. How evocative!

  8. shoreacres Says:

    Ah! More laundry! Monday was our laundry day, too. There’s nothing like the smell of sun and breeze dried sheets and towels. I find it so ironic that the very people who are in favor of solar and wind power consistently rule against clotheslines in subdivisions because of “aesthetic considerations”. That, in my opinion, is wrong-headed.

    We lived on a corner lot, and always hung the sheets and towels nearest the street, with our undergarments hidden away between them. You wouldn’t want the neighbors to see your “intimates”!

    What a sea-change in society.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Yes, I vote for the return of clotheslines, too. I hadn’t thought about “hiding” undies because on a farm, we had no neighbors to notice. Your comment made me smile!

  9. […] Line-Dried Laundry: Folded Sunshine, July 10, 2013 […]

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