Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Washin'

Looking back, as a young girl living in the coal camp of David, Kentucky through the 1940s and '50s, some of my strongest memories are of watching Mother do the washin'.  I helped her with little things like bringing her the clothespin bag or helping her carry a tub of wet clothes out to the line--several feet up the steep hillside that was our back yard. Sometimes I would move the clothesline prop--usually a strong tree branch that forked in a few places that allowed us to prop the line up high, or down low. I don’t remember ever doing the washing myself-- until I was married and had my very own Maytag wringer washer. I remember Mother letting me run some things through the wringer. It was really dangerous. She usually asked one of us children to plug the washer in, since she was afraid of electricity, too--although her childhood home up Stonecoal had been “wired” in the 1920s by her brother Rob Hicks who wanted to make life better for Granny and Pap.

We kept our Maytag wringer washer, on the back porch. Underneath the wringers was a wooden stool that held the tub of rinse water. There was one other tub to carry wet clothes out to the line. It was heavy. There were no plastic baskets back then. How did we get the water into the washer? We had a  laundry stove in the kitchen--a small black iron coal stove that heated water. Did Mother build a fire to heat the water then carry out buckets full? Did we heat the water in summer? The house would have been so hot! Did we have a hose that ran from the kitchen sink to the washer?

After my marriage in 1962, I used a wringer washer for several years.  We bought an automatic washer and an electric dryer in 1969. Why can’t I remember the details of doing the washing in a wringer washer? I seem to remember making big water messes in my kitchen, though .

I know that the best, cleanest clothes were washed first and that Daddy’s work clothes--coal mining clothes--were washed last. Once the black coal dust turned the water a scummy, dark gray, that was the end of the washin’ for that day. We dropped the drain line off the porch and let that water run into the back yard!

When did we do the clothes that needed bleach? You couldn’t start with bleach water. Did we do a separate load for those white things we bleached? If we’d used bleach, could we put the mining clothes into that same water? I don’t think so. I know we got the most out of every tub of water and didn’t empty the washer until we had to.

I also watched in awe as my wonderful mother-in-law did the washin’ every week, when I lived with her the first few months of my marriage. First, she built a fire in the middle of a circle of cinder blocks that she kept in the upper left corner of the front yard. She tended the fire until it was hot but tame, then placed a washtub securely on the blocks. She filled the tub with water she carried from  the hand-pump nearby and scurried to get the clothes, towels, and sheets sorted on the porch while the water heated, knowing it. wouldn't take long. Before long, with a lighter bucket, she carried hot water to the wringer washer on the porch.  The rinse tub had already been filled with cold water from the pump. Sometimes, I'd help with that job, but she didn't trust someone as young and inexperienced as I to do the more complex, important jobs. Usually, I did the inside work, while she worked outside. We had made that deal and it worked for me, even if I did have to learn how to keep fireplaces burning or banked, water carried to the kitchen, but nothing as hard as her outside work.

Another thing I’m wondering about—we said “do the washin”, not “do the laundry”. I wonder what other families said—and say.  Now I say, “do the laundry”, but my heart wants to say, “do the washin’”. What feels good to you? How did you and your mother sort all the clothes? What was your process. What got washed first? What last?

There seemed to be a protocol for proper washin’ in the coal camp Some of those homemakers had it down to an art form—washing on a certain day, hanging the clothes in a logical uniform way—you know—socks with socks, towels with towels, panties with panties. I was never taught this. Whatever was on top of the tub was hung on the clothesline first, out, no matter what it was.

Who taught you to hang out clothes? How to take them in  so they were in some kind of order for seasoning out, folding, preparing for ironing? I’m thinking women may have actually studied their neighbor’s clotheslines to make sure they were in line with the best homemaking practices. The washin’ was an important part of our culture. There seemed to be a set wash day and a set ironing day?  My mother was unpredictable and we never knew what would get ironed and what would never be ironed.  I remember sprinkling clothes with water and rolling them up—sometimes putting them in the refrigerator to cool. But, I don’t remember a system for getting them ironed. I think we ironed them as we needed them, and if you were the one needing something, you were the one that ironed it.

I admired the Howard family and the girls ironing on the porch all day Tuesdays. After Mother got Daddy’s clothes clean, we had to fend for ourselves. Maybe Toby and Peggy ironed for us younger ones. I hired out to Ila Willis when I was 12 years old and had to iron her husband’s white shirts and look after her 4-5 children. That was certainly educational. In return, though, she made me a beautiful white pique Eighth Grade Graduation dress. I never liked the dress, though, since I had to work so hard for it. What did I know? I was twelve.

 Please tell me some stories about doing the washing. I won’t even try to talk about bluing and starching!

While she washed the clothes, Mother told stories and I listened. I loved her stories of life, love, marriage, and heartache. I remember so many of her one-liners.

If they hurt you when you're young, Judy, you never forget it. 

It's OK to kiss a boy, Judy, but you don't need to kiss every boy".

Tell it on yourself, Judy, then no one can talk about you.

There's nothing worse than a gossip. There's nothing that hasn't happened in our own family. 

I love every one of my children the same. Rodney's never hurt my feelings, not even once, but I still love all of you the same.

Be a lady, but be a woman.

Having a lot of children doesn't mean you don't miss the one that's gone. 
 
If you’ve got it, you’ve got it and being fat don’t make any difference.

If I heard of any Bussey child showing fear of John L. Capelli, I’d whip them good. That would break Mary’s heart.

I don’t try to tell Toby what to do. She’s smart and stubborn and has a mind of her own. She’ll do just fine.

Mother's cigarette was ever present, dangling from her pretty lips, Betty Davis style or resting on a window sill burning a brown outline into the wood. Every single window in our house had burned cigarette marks. But we were doing the washing weren’t we?

I'm dreaming of my beautiful mother, Nova.....

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