White sheets flapping under luminous blue skies, I would skip through the rows of clothes feeling billowy and clean myself. Sometimes it was my job to hang up the clothes, sometimes to unpin the dry, stiff socks and shirts. Of all the jobs of childhood, this work at the clothesline was my favorite.
Scrubbing the dirty linens necessarily had to come first. There I’d sit, out under the endless expanse of Southwest blue, small pail under me, usually an old paint can which left merciless indentations in the backs of my thighs, and just before me like a yawning silvery gray band sat a large stainless steel basin. The brightness of metal caught the sun and cast a glow against the brown earth, loose and dusty, but hiding just below was endless clay.
First, I’d dump a cup of suds right in there, that same tub we used for baths and dishes, then I’d position the old hose that snaked about from a spigot at the side of the house, and being this close I had no cause to worry about kinks in the tubing like when watering trees a hundred yards out. A turn of the valve, an eruption of liquid, and I’d be careful not to waste a drop of that first spurt, hot from sitting in the length of hose, the only hot I’d get.
Cottons, and small knuckles, invariably, rubbed on a metal washboard, fingers quickly numbing from cold. I could never figure how to scrub the material closest to the big brassy buckles and buttons on my dad’s heavy overalls and was continually vexed by those fixtures. Scrub, wring, toss in a bucket. When all pieces were washed, I’d empty the great tub, at first by the pail, then once I could muscle it, by tipping the basin, creating rivulets and muddy swirls and soon my toes were submerged and curled under mud and clay. When you live in the desert, water is extra fascinating.
I would refill the washtub for a rinse that never seemed to run clear, and now hands were raw and back aching.The water would be brown and filmy by the time the last sock was scooped up from a bottom crevice, the last shirt wrung as tight as my tired arms could wring. A final dragging of pails heavy with washing over to the lines that stretched from east to west between wooden poles, beckoning to take my load, and I was at the best part of the job.
Arms stretched up, toes stretched, too, to hang the clean, wet clothes, and retrieve the dried, and this was a happier place.
There is nothing tragic in an eight-year-old having to wash tubs of laundry by hand. Millenia of young girls have been little washerwomen and mothers’ helpers and labored under more than this. Ancient girls would have cleaned their clothes by pounding them on rocks and washing the dirt away in the streams, and made their own soap, too, from the fat of sacrificed animals. When I was eight, the electric-powered washing machine was barely 70 years old and it’s not unreasonable that I should still be scrubbing clothes.
No, the tragic things aren’t the work and crudeness of the apparatus. It was my mother, sick in mind and body, lying in bed for weeks –in the hot summers even–loaded down with heavy blankets, alternately shivering and fevering, wet cloth on her forehead, and so the child was loaded down with all that laundry. Always with a wet cloth to cool her head, that’s how I remember my mother.
It was my father, inexplicably letting a brand-new washing machine shipped by my aunt from nearly two thousand miles away sit untouched in an outbuilding. After a while, the mice took up residence in the beautiful machine, and after a greater while, it was unusable, important parts chewed through. Really, it wasn’t inexplicable, it was the way he did most everything, in fits and starts and always undone. I spent many moments lost in dream over that machine, as if it were a magic capsule to usher me into normal life.
On the rare occasion when a friend was over, and it was laundry time, she would enjoy helping, quite entertained by the novelty of the washboard. In those instances, it was all joy — splashing water, wringing contests, and a race to the clothesline. The clothesline. If the cord had more tension, I could be a tightrope walker. If it were stronger, I could swing from my knees and do a cherry drop like on the monkey bars at school.
The clothesline was the end of the job, reaching up toward blue sky and all clean around me, and endless possibilities.