This Is the Way We Wash the Clothes

FACT: I am fourteen years old. I already know more than my mother does. She doesn’t drive. She doesn’t work. My mother quit school after eighth grade and went to vocational school. Now she has kids in grade school, junior high, and high school, plus four more at home, three in diapers, cloth diapers. Every day she stays at home. She washes clothes in the wringer washer in the cellar.  During commercial breaks from Search for Tomorrow until One Life to Live many hours later, she takes out the last load, puts in another, and hangs clothes on the line.

Her coffee cup and saucer sit beside her on the couch arm rest. If we interrupt her while her stories are on, she sometimes says, “Leave me alone!” She sometimes says, “I just don’t feel ambitious today.”

FACT: We live up north, in the boonies, the sticks, further back in time than the town. I go to high school. My teachers say I will go to college. I am in choir. I am in debate. I wear micro-miniskirts. I have babysitting money. I do not watch soap operas.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm between wrist and elbow, white pudding-y streaks on the skin and a bumpy bone that pushes up. She kept it out of sight, close to her side for years. I never really noticed. She got her arm caught in a wringer. That was one of only two or three brief stories about her childhood. Her brother drowned a cat in a bucket of tar Grandpa was using to fix the roof. She got her head shaved and the kids at school pulled her scarf off and chased her home, yelling “Lice head! Lice head!”

My mother set her hair with bobby pins and used home permanents and powdered her face on Sunday when she wore her blue dress. My mother was pretty. Her voice when she sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” or lullabies, was low, and I realize now, beautiful.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Summer vacation. I am bored, ambitious, and superior, so I graciously do the laundry, sure I will do a better job than my mother. My sister, Grace, comes down the cellar steps to help. She is four or five with dark wispy hair, an age that admires teens. “I wish I had pimples like you,” she says.

At the bottom right of the wooden steps my father made is a barrel stove on a dirt floor; on the left is a concrete floor and a wringer washer. Behind the washer are cobwebby wooden shelves filled with jars that gleam in the dimness: twenty quarts of tomatoes, thirty quarts of sweet and sour beans, apple butter, pieplant, pickled beets, plum jam with white paraffin on the top, a few big jars of pickled herring. In the fall and winter, piles of pumpkins and squashes lie there too, and potatoes whose eyes grow a foot long, reaching out like white umbilical cords.

The wringer washer, a stout lady on four iron legs with a roller bar like crossed arms, is already groaning and sloshing, plugged into a temporary electrical outlet which screws into the light socket. The light bulb screws into the other end; when you pull a string to turn off the light, the washer suddenly stops.

FACT: I don’t remember every detail. Twin rinse tubsgalvanized tin on legs with rollersare filled with water from a hose attached to a spigot somewhere. My mother has already filled the tubs. We open the washer lid, the agitator stops, and we fish the laundry out of the washer. Grace feeds the clothes between the dough-colored rollers into the first rinse tub. I stand on the other side helping them through. We both like the squiSsSSSHHHH of water hissing through the white pockets of jeans and spraying in our faces.

FACT: The wringer strips the newness out of clothes. My favorite tee shirt will be rough and stretched out on the bottom, faded from the sun; it will never feel soft again. It makes me look different and I long for a dryer like my school friends have, the ones with piano lessons, who swim at the Y and have lots of shampoo and conditioner in their bathrooms.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

We wash all our clothes in the same cold washwater. First pillowcases, towels, sheets, and not-too-dirty things. Add more Fels Naptha from the shiny green box, then do underwear and t-shirts. Add more soap until the water is slippery and gray. Put in diapers. Last of all, Dad’s overalls stiff with concrete. There’s sand in the bottom of the washer. When all the clothes are washed and rinsed and wrung and hung on the clothesline outside, we’re still not done. We have to empty the washer and the two rinse tubs. Unhook the stiff black hose from the washer’s edge, fill a pail, and carry it up the outside stairs and all around the house, past the lilac bush, past the clothesline, across the driveway out to the garden; because there’s no drain in the cellar floor. That’s why we don’t change water for every load.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

Grace and I are probably doing towels. Suddenly Grace cries, “Help!”  Her fingers are stuck between the rollers.

“Pull!” I say. It seems obvious enough. How could it be hard to pull her fingers out?

“I am but they won’t come out.” She whimpers.

I am certain I can get them out. I reach over and pull hard. “Ouch!” They won’t come; pulling only stretches her skin. The most I can do is keep her hand from going further in. My confidence evaporates. What will we do? What will we do? Then I notice the flat white bar on top of the wringer arm with words on it like “Safety Release” or “Emergency Release,” It should have been obvious but it wasn’t. I slam it hard with the palm of my hand. Nothing happens. Dammit. I slam again and press down. Like magic, the rollers come apart, and Grace pulls her hand out. Her fingers are cold and red but nothing is broken.

“Thank God!” I hug Grace. “Someone invented that after people got their hands caught,” I tell her. I am SO grateful to whoever it was.

FACT: “The revolving rollers exert 800 pounds of pressure.” Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

FACT: The plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, was feeding some wash into the wringer… Her fingers became entangled in the wet clothes and were pulled into the wringer…, causing her to sustain injuries to her arm. The washer was equipped with a safety release mechanism. However, it was located to the right of the machine and the plaintiff, while she was able to reach it, was not able to exert enough pressure on it to release the wringer.

Grace and I take a minute to calm down, and then go back to doing laundry. The flattened clothes fold into the clothesbasket in layers like Christmas ribbon candy. Together we carry the bushel basket with the falling-out bottom up the concrete steps. The thin metal handles dig into our hands as we pass the lilac bushes, and dump the load under the clothesline pole my father made. We hang up the wash.

On the way back we stop in the living room and tell my mom what happened. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Didn’t you get your hand caught in a wringer when you were young?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I sure did,” she says and turns back to her soap operas.

Many years later, I ask her more.

FACT: My grandmother was a trailblazer. In the 1940s when only movie stars got divorced, she got divorced. Twice. She had eight kids and worked as a cook in a bar. My mother stayed home, watched her younger brothers and sisters, and did the chores.

Although I’ve asked my mother, I don’t have all the facts: She probably stood on a chair to feed the clothes through the wringer. She was all by herself when the rollers sucked her fingers in. She must have pulled; but the rollers pulled back, sucked in the hand, twisted the skin, swallowed her arm nearly to the elbow. She pulled till the skin came loose, twisted it around to the other side of her arm, tore it open to make those scars. She may have had the wits to try to pull the plug, to turn the machine off, but couldn’t reach that far. How do you fight the machine with only a girl’s strength? How do you pull back against a thing that never tires? The pressure, the tightness became unbearable until her bone cracked. She must have screamed, cried for help, with no one around but her younger brother and sisters. How long did she cry and scream before a neighbor heard her and came over? How did they get her arm out? With a crowbar? A claw hammer? Was there a release bar on that washer?

My mother says she went to the hospital and wore her arm in a sling, but how could a sling be enough when a bone is sticking up?

FACT: When this happened, my mother was six years old.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm, a dramatic striation like layers in onyx, and on the inside between wrist and elbow, a bump pushes the skin up. She showed me how she can’t spread her fingers out straight, something I never noticed. It was never a big deal. She got used to the damage, an echo of one day when a girl of six did the family wash.

FACT: My mother is not bitter.

FACT: My mother’s flawed arm lifted ten babies and carried fire logs and dishpans of water and bushel baskets of wet clothes up the cellar steps out to the clothesline.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Lita KurthLita Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop): work accepted or published in FjordsReviewReduxRaven ChroniclesMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceeliipsis…literature and artComposeTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewVermont Literary Review, and othersHer work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.