Wash Day

January 2019

In the early 1960s, me, my Mom, Dad (who was mostly absent because he worked at sea) and my two sisters lived in an upstairs apartment on Church Hill in the middle of the downtown commercial district of St. John’s. To go outdoors you had to get dressed, go down two flights of stairs, open the front door, and step onto the sidewalk. There was no patio, no backyard, no clothesline. Wash day at our house was problematic. It was an all-day affair for my mother; a solitary event like most events in her life.

Dressed in her usual at-home apparel, a flowery cotton housedress which buttoned up the front and had two pockets, one for her tissues and the other for her cigarettes and matches, she would gather up all the dirty clothes and tackle the washing machine.

It was a big, white, round tub on wheels that normally occupied a corner of the kitchen. But on wash day it was wheeled over to the kitchen sink, where a hose curled at the bottom of the washer was removed, one end attached to the kitchen taps, the other held down into the tub. Before she turned on the taps, she would make sure that the other hose, the drain hose, snaking out of the bottom of the washer and curled upright over the lip, was properly hooked in place because, if not, as soon as the water started to flow, the hose would pop off and water would flood the floor. Taps turned on, water flowed into the tub. Bleach, Javex, and detergent – Sunlight or ABC – were added, not too much, don’t want foaming and bubbling suds to spew up and over the top and all over the floor. The washer was firmly anchored in place when Mom plugged the thick electric cord into the socket next to the sink. A lever, one of three on the front of the washer, was turned on and the chug-chugging of the motor would begin. The agitator, aptly named, was shaped like an auger and secured over a steel rod projecting up from the bottom of the tub. It would turn slowly to the right and then slowly to the left in a lazy dance, causing the water to swish-swish. The clothes moved, back and forth, around and around, and then swirled to the bottom of the tub only to swirl up again.

There was an order to washing. First in were the whites and unmentionables, then sheets, then towels, then the dark clothes, never together. Clothes had to be fished out of the tub when clean, a tricky task because the agitator kept turning as the clothes were removed, one piece at a time. Mom had to be quick so as not to get her hands knocked and banged or entangled in a piece of clothing. While she waited for the washing machine to complete its job, she boiled the kettle, steeped tea.

Her only companions were the three Earls: Earl Grey (tea), Erle Stanley Gardner (a mystery writer), and the Earl of Rothman (her cigarettes). They kept her company as she sat at her kitchen table, steam and smoke drifting lazily, making her squint, deepening the yellow streak in her hair and the fine lines around her eyes.

One cigarette burnt her fingers, another waited to be lit, a third, for good measure, was tucked behind her right ear. The slow chug-chug of the washing machine sent bleach-laden air swirling aloft, adding to the fug. This was her Monday morning ritual. The kitchen was tomb quiet, except for the chugging and swishing, at least until noon.

The light changed in the room, diverting her attention from her book to the washer, then to the stove. She sighed.

“Suppose I’ll have to stir my stumps, get lunch, they’ll be home soon.”

She shifted an odd assortment of previously cleaned clothes, normally housed in the bottom of the washer, to another chair. Later she will put them back in the washer; it was too much trouble to sort them, put them away. Besides, nobody ever looked for them, the mismatched socks, the shrunken sweater, the faded blouse that needed a button; all only fit for the garbage but as soon as she threw something out someone would look for whatever it was she disposed of. She checked to make sure the washer had sufficiently battered the dirt from the clothes, then fed them to the wringer’s maw.

The wringer, attached by two posts about eight or ten inches above the washer over the tub, held two rubber rollers, something like a pasta-making machine, that closely touched each other with space between only wide enough to allow wet clothes to be fed between them, one piece at a time. Shirts and blouses, anything with buttons, had to be carefully folded with the buttons safely tucked in, otherwise the pressure would pop the buttons off or get them jammed between the rollers causing the wringer to shut down. A sloping metal tray was attached to the wringer, just below the rollers, so that the water, when squeezed out of the clothes, would run back into the washer.

“Careful, watch those fingers,” she would admonish herself.

She knew someone who knew someone who got her fingers caught in the wringer. Lost her fingers, hand, the whole arm, crushed beyond repair; ruined the clean clothes in the bargain.

Fascinated, she would watch the wringer squeeze air and water out, mangling into submission clothes that would lie lifeless in the basket on the floor, waiting to be rinsed, then mangled again. She would shudder at the image of her fingers, hand, arm, similarly mangled. A tiny thrill of anticipated attention would tempt her. Then someone would have to look after her for a change, but who?

The downstairs door would bang open. Three girls would troop in, bringing cold air, laughter, life.

“What’s for lunch Mom? Please don’t say cabbage hash again.”

She would step away from the machine.

Later, when the girls went back to Holy Heart, she would drain and then refill the washer with clean water, rinse the clothes, and then hang the almost-but-not-quite-dry clothes over the line strung in the stairwell, on radiators, or over backs of chairs, wherever she could find space. She would chuckle thinking about the girls’ embarrassment when they would see bras and other underwear strung haphazardly around the different rooms. She would sigh again. Once the clothes were dry she had to press, iron, fold, and put everything away, only to repeat the whole process again the next week. Such was life.

Installation View of “HouseWork(s)”
Kamloops Art Gallery
Pam Hall
Image source

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