“This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes”

April 22, 2011 § 5 Comments

On spring and summer days when the wind blows fresh my thoughts turn to (gasp) Hanging Out the Wash. If you’ve ever smelled the honest fresh-air scent of sheets snapping and dancing in the wind, you’ll be nodding and smiling about now.

Washing wasn’t nearly so automatic in my pioneer days youth. A picture in our family album from my early childhood in northern Norway shows four year old me scrubbing clothes on a scrub board in a metal pan set on a sled with deep snow all around.

As a barely nineteen-year-old bride in Seattle, I learned about laundry the hard way. How hard can it be to do a wash, I wondered? I used the automatic washer and then hung our clothes on lines strung inside our Ballard basement apartment. Powdered laundry starch was a common additive to the rinse water then. Acting out the motto “If a little is good, a lot is better,” I dumped in a generous amount. My dry wedding gift tablecloths and towels looked as if an angry side wind had pushed them into a horizontal position and were stiff for years.

When we lived in an Inuit settlement in the western Canadian Arctic in our twenties I melted snow for wash water in a tub on top of our oil cookstove. First I’d wash my long thick hair, then baby clothes, then regular clothes, then really dirty clothes, and last the floor. It took so much snow to melt for a tub of water I never wasted it. When it was really cold … really cold … I could throw my wash water up in the air outside and watch it freeze and fall to the ground in crystal shards. Sub-zero temperatures will freeze dry laundry. First it goes into “rigor clothis” and then it soften as it dries.

Our hamlet finally was wired for electricity, but our house wasn’t hooked up right away. We were ready and waiting for the promised electricity with a used wringer washer. You know –the contraption with rollers that eats hands, long hair, and pops rivets on jeans. But, boy does that back and forth action clean. My neighbor had electricity so I parked my machine at her house and used it on a certain day of the week, and she used it other times. But, when my wash day coincided with the “sked”–when booze was delivered by plane from the Hudson’s Bay store 350 miles away, that didn’t work so well. One day I walked towards my neighbor’s, pulling a sled with my dirty laundry. Before I got to the porch she saw me coming and came hollering, slurring and smiling, “Inger, Inger, I’m not drunk.” Sounds of a party in the background begged to differ. Discretion being the better part of valor caused me to say, “I’ll come back another day.”

My favorite washing machine ever was a compact Hoover Spin-Dryer. Granted you couldn’t get many clothes in its rectangular body at one time, but the spinning action was amazing. Clothes would emerge almost dry. This was a desirable benefit as we often hung clothes on lines in the living room ceiling. If the wash was too wet the atmosphere was the opposite of a hothouse … yes, a cold, damp house. The best spot for drying was a wooden rack my husband built above the cookstove. Diapers would dangle near the soup, but they got dry.

One lovely spring to fall before our girls started school we built a cabin on Adams Lake in British Columbia. With the deliciously dry and hot summers we’d often work outside in our bathing suits. Another wringer washer became my prized possession. It was perched on a ledge on the steep lot that we were building on and plugged in to the one electrical outlet we had. Water came from the clear, cool shores of that deep lake. Eighteen buckets hauled up the hill from the lake is what it took to do the wash. My arms were in great shape and I was tired, tanned and happy.

Now my state-of-the art washer and dryer requires many choices and active button pushing. On breezy warm days I may wax nostalgic for my old wringer washer or hanging out clothes in the fresh air. Then I sit down until the moment passes.

copyright 2011

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