This is one of my earliest memories. It is the summer I am three; I know this because of the house in the memory, and where the trees are. It is the summer of 1961, and I am helping my mother hang laundry outside. My job is to hand her clothes pegs. I want to play with them, make them into little people – these are the pegs that are one split and shaped piece of dowel, with rounded heads, not the sprung ones. My mother lets me play; I am being kept quiet, and not wandering, which is all that matters.
Fast forward fifty-four years. I am standing outside in our garden, not long after dawn on an August morning, hanging laundry. A red squirrel chitters and scolds at me from the tall Norway spruce, and a crow announces my presence to the wide wild world. A breeze ruffles my hair. I am wearing rubber boots against the dew, and long sleeves against the mosquitoes.
Hanging laundry is pure pleasure for me. I shake out each piece and pin it to the line, listening to birdsong, and the sounds of cattle and geese from the farm beyond the woods that border our garden. The day smells new, and there is still a pinkish glow in the sky, reflected on the trees.
To be out here at dawn, or just after, I have put the laundry in the washer the night before, at bedtime, and let it finish its cycle and sit until morning. This both gives me the maximum drying time, and uses electricity at an off-peak time. Small frugalities; habits of thrift. Even now, in mid-August in Ontario, I can need all day for things to dry – it was cool today, and cloudy, and the drying line is in the shade for much of the day.
Memories. Hanging laundry on a rope line in a campground in Arizona, where the cotton shirts and underwear were dry almost before I hung them. Another campground – Texas, I think – where hummingbirds came to investigate the blue plastic clothes pegs. A line in Botswana, where all items must be ironed after drying to kill the eggs of a fly, laid in the damp cotton. Ecuador, where things take three days to dry, in the humidity of the rainforest.
We don’t hang everything. Tree pollen is my worst hay-fever antagonist, and our garden is full of trees, not even counting the woods behind us, so bedding goes in the dryer in the spring. BD’s cotton shirts come in damp and are finished in the dryer for ten minutes to prevent wrinkles (and ironing). The outdoor drying season is only about five months long, six in a year of early spring and late fall; the rest of the year we use the dryer.
Outdoor drying means being mindful, paying attention to the weather forecast, and then to the skies, because the weather forecast isn’t reality. It takes a bit of planning. But when I went out, this time in shorts and sandals, to get today’s laundry in at five-thirty, the towels smelled like sun and grass. The water – our well water – that they had held had evaporated off, to become part of the water cycle and return as rain. I think about cycles and continuity: women have been hanging laundry in this garden since this house was built in 1911. The robin that is singing and the red squirrel that is chattering are probably descendants of the ones that were singing and chattering a hundred and four years ago. The water from our well has evaporated off wet clothes, condensed as clouds, rained, become ground water, filled our well….how many times?
My mother lived to ninety-three. She stopped hanging out laundry somewhere in her late sixties, when arthritis and stairs to the back garden made it impossible for her. But she missed it; missed being in the garden, being out in the sun, chatting with the neighbour across the fence, hearing birds. She hung laundry for much of her life because she had to; I do it for reasons of sustainability and thrift, but for both of us, the pleasure was, and is, greater than the chore.