That Monday had to work so hard in the Old Country was surely at least partially Sunday’s fault. By the way, when I say ‘the Old Country,’ I don’t mean Russia or Italy or England, I mean ‘the Past.’ It’s our family expression for ‘back in the day’ and it fits somehow. The 1960s and 1970s seem, by this time, to have been a completely different place.
I never saw Granny work so hard as on Washing Day, which was always Monday of course, and I saw her work so that the sweat streamed in rivelets down her face and off her little turned-up nose. We were frequently at her place in the summer, where it was frequently over 100 degrees, so that had a lot to do with it. But wash day, at least until Grandpa converted half the back porch into a utility room (and ruined it, in my opinion) was a major production.
She had a wash house just west of the little main house, on the other side of the short chain-link fence across the side yard from the kitchen. The wash house used to be the smoke house in the even Older Country, they tell me, and it was still there last time I was around, but you couldn’t pay me $50 to go into it now, not the way it looked last time my sister opened the door and showed me.
Granny got up extra early on Mondays, because among other things she had to heat the wash water, and that took time. She had a heavy iron cauldron that sat over a propane burner. My mother has cactus planted in it now, but in the Old Country it held either water from the cistern or, later on, water from the well down east of the tank, or ‘stock pond’ to you Yankees. Sometimes when the well was low in really dry summers we had to use tank water, and I don’t suppose there was much difference between washing with or bathing in that and just sitting under a cow and having her piss on you for a shower.
When Granny got the water hot, she would have three washtubs set out in a square with the old Maytag wringer washer at one corner. The wringer could be swung around so that it went over any of the other tubs and that’s where the rinse water went: there was some with bluing for the sheets and some plain for the colors. One tub had soap and a washboard. She had made that soap herself out of wood ash and lard, and Dad says there’s still some of it left in the washhouse somewhere, because when she last made it she made enough to last her a lifetime, and apparently longer.
She would stand there and scrub the especially dirty clothes on that wash board, biting her tongue so hard it was always a wonder to me that she didn’t bite the tip clean off. She always bit her tongue when she was working hard, so she bit it more on Monday than on any other day and you knew when you saw her a-doin’ it that it was no time to be asking her for anything. I thought she was gonna throw the soap at me one time when I had to go into the wash house and tell her that Granny Routon, her mother, was on the phone. “Didn’t you tell her it was Monday?” she fussed before hobbling back to the house, but all she said to her mother when she picked up the phone was “Hi.”
By the time she got off the phone the load in the washer was ready, and if you were standing around and seemed interested she might let you feed the clothes through the wringer, and I remember that after she got ’em started she’d stand there and poke ’em through with a stick that she also used to fish ’em up out of the rinse water. The washer had a gas motor back in the Even Older Country–I wonder how that worked in an enclosed space–but Grandpa had converted it to electricity when that came in at the farm in the mid-1950s. (For those of you opposed to gov’mint, let me point out that without the REA and such I imagine they’d still be waiting for private enterprise to run the lines out that way.) Her admonitions to watch your fingers near the wringer hardly seemed necessary; I didn’t trust it myself much more than I would have trusted a live crocodile.
The wringer’s place has been supplanted in these more enlightened times by the spin cycle, although the wringer never shut off halfway through a cycle because of an unbalanced load–and why blue jeans cannot ever balance themselves is a thing I should like to have explained to me, although I suspect there is some Physics involved. That is not a word that Granny knew much about. She just knew that the wringer got the wash water out before the rinse and the rinse water out afterward and that it then was time for the clothes to be towed out, two baskets at a time, in Dad’s old Radio Flyer wagon to the place behind the chicken coop where they had the clothes lines strung.
She had a clothes dryer, even in my earliest remembrance, out in the washhouse in the corner across from the door, but it used propane and propane cost money and thus I suspect that Grandpa interdicted its use except for rainy days or delicate items. He was a tight-fisted old son-of-a-gun who nevertheless let more securities and insurance salesmen who professed to be ‘Christian’ gull him out of more money than I could comfortably retire on even now. I went to church twice every Sunday I was there with the old tightwad, yet he still fussed at me about the cost of running the electric fan next to my bed all night, until I got hold of his electric bill and did the math and then left a note with the calculations and a quarter on his desk. That shut him up. I never saw the like until my wife and I were honeymooning in Edinburgh and the one electric outlet in the room we were staying in had a coin operated box on it that you had to put tenpence in before you could heat the electric teakettle. So perhaps Grandpa had a Scotch ancestor.
If the old tightwad was feeling generous he might tow the laundry out to the lines himself but more often than not I saw Granny do it. There were four lines in parallel with enough length–I swear it was twenty yards–to hang every pair of overalls, every shirt, every dress, every pants suit, every sheet, every towel, every pair of fruit-of-the-loom-tighty-whiteys and every brassiere the two of them owned, and those last items were easily large enough to have served as watermelon launchers so if my daughter wants to know where her own buxomness comes from, there you are. If it was hot and windy, and generally it was both in the summer, the stuff she hung up at the beginning would be dry by the time she got to the end so that at least saved a trip.
That was morning. After dinner, which I remember being based largely on Sunday leftovers, and the washing up, the rest of the laundry would be gathered in. Then Granny would get out the ironing board and the iron. And then she would go to singing.
She could carry a tune without a bucket, I’ll give her that, though even in her youth she’d have never made the first cut on American Idol, although she wouldn’t have made the train-wreck episode neither. She sang hymns, mostly, because that’s just about all she knew except for a couple of lullabyes and some Christmas carols one of which I have never heard from any other source including the Internet:
Santey will come on Christmas Eve
Bringing presents I believe.
She never sang that one on wash day even in winter but she sang “I’m in the King’s Army” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” (until I was 12 years old I thought it was “Bringing in the Sheets” and I still don’t think it’s any cause for rejoicing; she told me she’d thought the same thing at my age), and when she was especially tired and still had a pile of ironing left:
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
Then we’ll be gathered home
Which considering how delayed that blessed event has been since the first Christians thought it would be any minute now has got to be the most depressing song in the history of humankind.
Lord, I can hear her now singing in my left ear–the deaf one–and whenever I’m slaving away in the back yard of my place, carrying heavy buckets of water out to the pine trees in the back or any other poor sod of a plant that I’m try to get to grow in this less-than-perfectly hospitable high-altitude desert I’m apt to bust out singing “We’ll work” just like I’m doing a duet with her and who know perhaps we are. It seems to help.
In the evening with the ironing done and the beds changed out and made up fresh and supper eat and cleared away she would sit in her chair in the corner across from the TV where there used to be a bedstead, she told me, in which she herself had been born almost a 100 years ago now (Land! That I can write that, and it be true!) with a plate of potted meat and crackers and some embroidery pieces for a quilt she was doing for Mrs. Thorton who none of us except Granny thought paid near enough. Even then, she would think about the work she had to do on the morrow and she might say something like “Clinton, I’m’a need you to go down in the cellar tomorrow morning and bring up that biggest pressure cooker that sits down next to the chair that that hurricane lamp is on. Your Grandpa brought in a sack of green beans from the garden this evening and I expect I need to go to canning. Reckon?”