Wash Day

This chapter didn’t make it into my memoir, even though it was one of my favorites. It holds happy and satisfying memories that make me wish I could sneak back into the past for an afternoonto sit and watch Grandma iron and listen to her stories. Maybe ask her a few questions I didn’t know to ask at six or seven.

I opened my eyes. The sun was shining, and for a moment I couldn’t remember what day it was. I savored those few moments when anything was possible. Who knew what might be about to happen? Then I remembered coming home from church last night. Today was Monday, Grandma’s washday, one of my favorite days of the week.

Even before I went downstairs to have my hair combed, Grandma had taken all the dirty clothes and sheets to the basement. She needed to start the wash as soon as possible, so there was no time for stories as she braided my hair. When she finished, I followed her down the worn steps to the cool basement, smelling of damp earth, musty wood, oil that dripped from the furnace, and Grandma’s lye soap. Her sturdy Maytag washing machine stood on the rough cement floor waiting for us. Beside it, two galvanized square rinsing tubs rested on a wooden stand Grandpa had made years ago. A bare light bulb hung on a cord from the ceiling. This was not like magazine pictures I looked at where a smiling woman in a ruffled white apron, with bright red lipstick and high heels, stood over a gleaming new automatic washer in a pristine, shiny-floored room. She was doing “laundry.” We did the wash, a much less glamorous activity.

A not quite pristine apron in this ad, but still a world apart from our musty, dimly lit basement.

Using a hose connected to a small sink, Grandma began by filling the washer with water too hot even for her hands. As it filled, I helped her sort the wash into piles—white sheets and underwear, light-colored dresses, Grandpa’s dark socks and garden clothes. Then Grandma dropped sheets and pillowcases into the steaming water and punched them down with her faded silver-gray stick, worn satiny smooth from years of use. The end of the stick felt almost as soft as the bristles of a baby’s hair brush. I watched the clothes slowly churn their way around the washtub. When it was time to transfer them to the rinse tub, Grandma dipped her washing stick into the water and lifted out the end of a sheet, holding it aloft for a moment, to cool it enough for her fingers, and then started it through the wringer.

I wasn’t allowed to put things through the wringer. Grandma told me, for the hundredth time, the story of Uncle Bob getting his fingers caught in it when he was little. The wringer pulled in his fingers, hand and then arm. Without thinking, she reversed the wringer, rolling his small arm back out between the two cylinders. He almost fainted. She should have disengaged the wringer, she explained, which would have separated the cylinders and freed his arm.

Partly because of this potential danger, but even more because of its almost magical workings, the wringer fascinated me. All that needed to be engaged was the merest tip of a towel or sheet, and the entire piece would be pulled through with no additional effort by Grandma.

My favorite part of wash day was the pillow case trick. Usually, Grandma ran them through the wringer, closed end first, but if I asked, she gathered the open edges of a pillow case together and started it through the wringer that way. As it was pulled through, air was forced back into the case, blowing it up like a balloon, only to be deflated at the final moment with a gratifying whoosh. I wanted Grandma to do it again, but she said it was hard on pillow cases and wouldn’t do another.

After that excitement, I turned my attention to the rinse tubs where I could dip the clothes up and down, swishing them around to my heart’s content, that is, until Grandma pivoted the wringer to a position between the two wash tubs and sent the clothes to the second rinse. She poured bluing into that rinse to make the white things look whiter. It reminded me of the blue ink Mother used to fill her fountain pen. Even diluted in the rinse tub, it remained deep blue. I couldn’t figure out how dark blue could make things whiter, but she said it did.

Some things required starch—Niagara starch powder, which she poured out of the dark green box with a picture of Niagara Falls washing down the side. She mixed the powder with boiling water in a small dishpan, and into this she dipped some dresses, aprons, Grandpa’s shirt collars and cuffs, and anything else that needed starching. She wrung those things out by hand so as not to squeeze out all the starch.

As we stood over the rinse tubs, Grandma had time to tell me another story. Years ago, Grandpa and other preachers rotated from one church to another within a given area—”the circuit” they called it. They preached at a different church each week, and wherever they preached, someone from that congregation invited them home for dinner. In those days Sunday dinners were considered the biggest and best meal of the week. The table would be spread with a carefully ironed white table cloth and set with the hostess’s best plates and prettiest serving dishes. The meal usually included several meats, various vegetables, two kinds of potatoes, bread or rolls, several kinds of jellies and jams, sweet pickles, sour pickles, and most likely a mixed pickle relish. In case anyone was still hungry, there were at least three desserts—cake, pie, and canned fruit. Grandma ate until she was stuffed and always wished she could take home some of the abundance to get her through her Monday washing. She made us both hungry by her descriptions, but the work wasn’t finished.

It was now time to carry the first heavy basket full of wet clothes up the narrow outside basement steps to the wash line in the back yard. I usually avoided these steps because they were an easy trap for leaves from the maple trees in the back yard. Earth worms, grubs, and snails hid under the damp, decaying leaves, and I certainly didn’t want to step on anything slimy or sticky. The walls on either side were not much safer than the steps, so rough I had to be careful not to scrape my elbows against them. I took each step gingerly, holding my breath and hoping to make it to the top without encountering a worm, or worse yet a snail. At the top I breathed in again.

Not a wash day picture but the only one that shows the wash line wheel attached to the house. Wash day was far too mundane to immortalize with a photograph. This picture of me and my sisters was taken the summer I was six years old.

Grandma had a pulley wash line like the ones we saw at Amish houses in Pennsylvania. Grandpa put it up for her—two metal wheels around which the line was stretched in a circuit. One wheel was attached to the side of the house and the other to a utility pole just beyond the garden. Grandma stood at one spot and hang up the clothes, pushing the line along as she added to the string of sheets, towels, and shirts. As with most things, Grandma had a right way to hang up the wash. She didn’t just reach into the basket and pull out the first thing her hand encountered. She dug for the sheets first and then the pillowcases and then underwear. She liked order, even on the clothesline. The next cardinal rule was to shake out each garment hard enough to make it SNAP. This helped to get out wrinkles. She fastened the wash on the line with clothespins that were faded to a silvery gray, almost matching her washing machine stick. When she finished, sheets, dresses and towels flapped in the breeze, high above the garden. Once in a while, on a very windy day, the clothes, acting like sails, caused the line to roll on its own and pull a piece of clothing under the wheel. When that happened Grandpa had to get the tall ladder, climb up to the wheel, and work carefully to disengage the garment without tearing it.

Since I couldn’t reach the wash line, Grandma gave me all of Grandpa’s big square white hankies to spread on the grassy bank in front of the row of grape vines where the sun helped to bleach them. I liked how the spread-out hankies bent down the grass blades when they were wet, but as they dried, they become less heavy, and by the time they were completely dry they lay on the very tips. I had to keep an eye on them and gather them before they blew away.

In the afternoon, Grandma brought the basket full of dried clothes in from the line. She would do the ironing the next day, but she sprinkled the clothes with water, so they would be evenly moist and ready to iron. Most things needed ironing—dresses, Grandpa’s shirts, sheets, pillow cases, aprons, table cloths, handkerchiefs, even Grandpa’s pajamas. Underwear and bath towels were the only things we didn’t iron. Upstairs Mother had a bottle with a sprinkler top for dampening our clothes, but Grandma just used her fingers. She put water in a small bowl, spread out a garment on the kitchen table, dipped her fingers into the water and spritzed water all over it. The drops sounded like rain falling on the stiff, air-dried fabric which still smelled like the outside air. She folded each piece over and spritzed again, so both sides would get damp, and then rolled up the piece and stacked it with others on the table. When everything was dampened, she wrapped the pile in a sheet or table cloth and placed the bundle back in the wash basket. Letting everything stand allowed the moisture to spread evenly through each piece.

The next day I watched Grandma iron. Now she could tell stories. I settled in on the daybed under the dining room windows, breathed in the warm, starchy, almost toasty smell of hot ironed cotton and listened.

A Sunbeam iron just like Grandma’s

Some of her “stories” were not really stories, but explanations of how to iron properly—sleeves first, then front and back, collar last of all. To iron cuffs, yokes, and collars it was important to start on the inside of the garment, making sure those inside panels were smooth. Otherwise, the outside wouldn’t get as smooth as it should. You needed to flatten out the fabric and iron slowly, putting more pressure on the back of the iron than the tip for the first go, so that you did not create wrinkles, like Aunt Maggie, who, Grandma said, ironed more wrinkles in than she ironed out. Aunt Maggie was Grandpa’s sister who came from Pennsylvania to visit several times a year. She exceled at nothing in Grandma’s school of housekeeping, but we all loved her anyway.

 Grandma made ironing look easy, but when she gave me the heavy iron to do Grandpa’s handkerchiefs, I struggled not to be like Aunt Maggie. Ironing was harder than it looked. Some day when I was older, I could iron Grandpa’s pajamas, Grandma said. But she wouldn’t let anyone else iron the starched white shirts Grandpa wore to school and church. She didn’t trust anyone else, even Mother, to iron up to her standard. She wanted him to look perfectly groomed, so that people would see that she loved him and took good care of him. Judging by the look of his shirts, she loved him very much.

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  1. Linda Hollinger on July 28, 2022 at 10:47 pm

    Ah Kathy, this one sure brought back memories of mine! Same warnings with the wringer washer, sprinkling the clean clothes, and getting my ironing critiqued. I enjoyed this a lot.

    Linda H


    • kathiekurtz on July 29, 2022 at 10:09 am

      Yes, those were rituals foreign to our children and grandchildren. The memories bring back to me a slower pace of life–not easier but more grounded or basic. Literally more in touch with reality. I can “wash clothes” now and not ever get my hands wet. And the things that I iron are “sprinkled” by my iron. But I still relish the smell of sun-dried sheets when weather permits.

  2. Linda Gnagey on July 29, 2022 at 7:45 am

    I have many similar memories of my
    Mom and her wringer washer, line-drying, and starched ironing. I line dry most laundry today from her example. Thanks for sharing!

  3. kathiekurtz on July 29, 2022 at 10:12 am

    Thanks, Linda. I have fewer such memories with my mother because at some point she got an automatic washer. Grandma eventually did as well, but even then, I remember her standing with the lid of it open, her wash stick in hand to stir things around because she couldn’t quite trust that they would get properly washed without her assistance.

  4. Joan Berge on July 29, 2022 at 11:17 am

    I’m so glad you shared this with us! It definitely should have made it into the book. It bought back many memories for me – getting my sister’s arm in the wringer (fortunately getting it out in time), sprinkling the clothing, having a meal with a parishioner after a morning service in Newfoundland, and many more. All written in your beautiful writing style. So glad to read another part of your memoirs.

    • kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 11:38 am

      Thanks, Joan. I fortunately don’t have a wringer story involving one of my body parts. Grandma made sure I didn’t have a chance, and by the time I was old enough to do washing I knew to be careful. But then we got an automatic, so I didn’t need to worry.

  5. Lee Snyder on July 29, 2022 at 11:51 am

    A lovely piece! It evokes so many memories–including my own use of a wringer washer, rinse tubs, bluing and starching. Laundry is still my favorite household job. Maybe you know Kathleen Norris’ delightful little book, “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work'”?

    • kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Lee! I don’t know that Norris book. I’ll have to look it up.

      • Linda Gnagey on August 1, 2022 at 11:06 am

        Quotidian Mysteries is my favorite Norris book. It helped bring validation to the years I truly enjoyed at home with three kids and “women’s work.”

  6. Eunice Wenger on July 29, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    Kathie, you remembered lots of interesting details. I still wash blue things in my whites load due to my mother’s teaching.

    One of my best memories of contentment happened in Richmond when Christian was a baby. At dusk on a cool fall day, I came into a warm kitchen smelling of potatoes cooking for supper, arms full of diapers sweetened with fresh air. I thought, “This is the good life.”

    • kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 10:49 am

      Yes, I know what you mean. When I take in a deep smell of sun-dried laundry, I feel full of hope and joy–the sun still shines and life is rich beyond measure.

  7. Saloma Furlong on July 29, 2022 at 3:26 pm

    Kathie, this is another example of your writing being so rich in sensory details, I feel as if you took me on a journey back to the past. Your story is so much like the what it was like on “washday” back in my childhood home, though our washer was run with a combustion engine, and we had to carry and heat the water.

    My mother “sprinkled” the clothes like your grandmother and rolled them up in a towel.

    Thank you for this trip down memory lane.

    • kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 11:00 am

      Thanks, Saloma! It seems that many of us have similar memories around washing. It is on one hand a lowly task that needs to be done and then done again, but it carries with it details of a life that represent much more–love for family, care for possessions, an attempt to make order of daily living, and playing in water which is an almost instinctual behavior for most people. There are a lot of “hooks” to hang those memories on.

  8. Donna Burkhart on July 31, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    I’d read this again but must go hang out the wash so it will dry yet this afternoon — just a single white load to get the full sun while I listen to Tanglewood’s broadcast of The Emperor’s concerto. ❤️

    • kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 11:29 am

      And was your line of wash as sweet as we all remember when you took it down? I can picture you taking it down with the view of fields beyond you–as beautiful a setting as one could have, and burying your nose in the basket, carrying that freshness inside with you.

  9. Margie Van Nostrand on July 31, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    Another exquisitely detailed story, Kathie. It reminded me of the way my mother did our wash, with a ringer, in the early fifties in Alpine, CA. It also happened to bring back some other memories of those times – the milkman delivering milk and putting it right in the refrigerator for us; my mother whipping up homemade margarine; my father enlisting the help of a neighbor who knew how to douse for water with a willow branch. (We actually found an underground source of water that way!); the Mexican undocumented migrants whom my father gladly employed to work on our property: the naming of our house – “Bird Haven Lodge” – remembering how you mentioned in your book that people used to give names to their dwellings; riding in the back of our pickup with a whole bunch of church kids, with no seat belts! –
    “Those Were the days, my friend – I thought they’d never end…”

  10. kathiekurtz on August 1, 2022 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, Margie! It sounds like you have more than enough to start writing your own story of growing up–for you children and grandchildren if no one else. I, for one, would enjoy reading it.

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