We were nine and she was a machine.
One week’s- sometimes two week’s worth of clothing, but she had no fear.
Three or four of us trailed behind while she heaved bag after bag upon her shoulder and up to the commercial washers.
I cringed as she started pulling out the filth (sand went flying with the unfurling of smelly socks).
I went into cardiac arrest when she unabashedly held up Dad’s bright red union suit, (a.k.a full-length long johns), complete with flap in the back, buttoned in one corner and the other corner dangling to expose an all- too- real visual of my father’s derriere. WHY, in the name of all that’s decent, did she examine them with outstretched arms, turning them this way and that before finally (after what seemed like an eternity) flinging them into the circular tub?
Was she aware that underneath the fresh green grass stains on the boy’s jeans, still lingered grass stains three washes old? I asked myself why she bothered.
Bothering was one thing. Making me participate in the spectacle was a senseless cruelty I couldn’t understand or accept.
Head down, face scowling, I never knew where to stand or stare. Falling into a deep well of embarrassment, I was clawing the walls, never able to climb out. I knew, with the certainty of a hot faced eleven year old, that every mouth in the laundromat was dropped and gaping in shock and terror at what this tiny woman from the mountains drug in.
We were nine. Seven children, two parents, and never less than seven bags of the dirtiest garments that were ever slapped down in a public wash house.
We lived a hard life in the remotest part of the mountain with our males as wild as the terrain they wandered. Humble, as they were, cleanliness was never in their thought process. Nor, quite frankly, was it ever within their grasp. We slept outside, or in a large green army tent and even the girls raced an uphill battle against dirt floors, muddy river beds, and smokey campfire lights.
I was afraid to breathe. I busied myself supervising my younger sister, trying desperately to keep her out of the space of the other patrons. I didn’t possess the wisdom to know that I was drawing even more attention to our family than had I just let her be.
I could play in happy forgetfulness with my siblings until my eyes caught a glimpse of any one of our four large dryers. Then I would get a sickening feeling in my gut and fly into fretful panic. They had been washed, but you would never know it.
Everyone else’s laundry was tumbling in joyful rhythm and I swore I could hear the pristine whites singing in unison with the fluffy towels that looked like they just floated out of a Sears store.
Not so the four dryers on the end.
Mama pulled out the thin, tattered towels and tried to find a straight edge to match up with another straight edge to no avail. And as our gruesome gray-white socks continued to bounce up against the heated glass, I was constantly trying to will them to the back of the drum.
When Mama called me to help with the folding, I whined and hissed quietly under my breath. Oh the monotony of those folds! In the stifling heat of a building with no air conditioning, even the doors, flung wide open, offered little relief.
Laundry days were, without a doubt, one of the great tragedies of my youth. But in retrospect, they were also one of the richest experiences of my life!
She was a machine. I just didn’t get that back then. Every ten days or so, like clock work, she showed up with half of her children in tow and did, without complaint or scorn, what she had to do. She didn’t have a choice in the matter. If she loved us (and she did), she would see to it that we had “clean” clothes.
Funny thing, I love doing laundry today. It is a very complete therapy for me. I learned to press through the bad and find the rainbow at the end of it. Beautiful little mystery there…some of us can relate that to dish washing as well.
I learned patience, compassion, diligence (sticking to a job until its done) and creativity. Eventually, I learned to hold my head up high and not worry about what other people think. In time I also came to understand that Mama had to bring me with her on laundry days to keep me safe. It was extra work for her having us all there, but our well being was always more important than her work load.
I thank God for laundry days, memories that linger of laundry days, and above all, I thank God that I had the kind of Mother I did.