The lost art of hanging out the wash

David J. Boyer

October 14, 1992|By David J. Boyer

A FEW days ago provided one of the few opportunities living in Baltimore allows us to indulge in one of life's little pleasures: hanging out laundry to dry. The rains had let up, Baltimore's famous humidity had dropped, and the clear, dry air provided ideal drying conditions.

I've done the family laundry for many years; it's one of the few domestic skills I possess. Laundry is one job I've always been interested in, and many of my early memories are of watching my grandmother do the wash.

She had an old wringer washing machine and double laundry tubs, and I used to love to watch her fill the water and throw it into gear, and then I would stand and follow the swirling, pulsing action in the soapy water.

I think of her every time I perform the next step in the ritual, taking a wet rag to clean the drying lines in preparation for hanging the freshly washed clothes. Her lines were cotton, and were stored wound on a wooden board deeply notched on either end and with a hand grip cut into the side.

I had always imagined that my grandfather had made her the board. It was worn as smooth and soft as my grandmother herself. The lines were stretched the length of her yard between iron poles, one pair on either side of the walk, just like all the others in back of her row of houses.

A knowledge of this geography is necessary to understanding one of my favorite photographs: my father standing in that backyard, my uncle standing on top of my father's head. Quite a feat, unless you know that Dad was directly in front of one of those three- or four-inch diameter iron wash poles, and Uncle Bob was standing on it, not on my father's head.

My lines are nylon, and they span the arms of a folding aluminum frame in a corner of my yard. It is space-efficient, but doesn't dry clothes as quickly because I pack it tightly. The overall effect is the same, however: fresh, clean clothes in the sunshine, moving in the breeze. This has always been a sign to me that someone is home, that someone cares about the values of thrift, work and looking after others.

There are neighborhoods not too far from mine where local covenants control how and where laundry may be hung out. I will never understand this. To me, nothing says more about a neighborhood than the quantity of laundry on the lines. Anyone can build or buy a house; fresh laundry in the backyard makes it somebody's home.

The benefits of hanging out laundry are many. There is the feeling that I am somehow cheating BG&E out of its due, since the gas dryer stands idle while the sun provides free drying power. There is the advantage of not having to wait for heavy items to finish in the dryer, so I can keep the washing machine going full tilt. There is the time, after all the loads are hanging, when all I can do is sit on the screen porch, iced tea in hand, and wait for the wash to dry. That's good work, if you can get it.

But the biggest benefit comes later when autumn's cold rains finally put an end to outdoor drying. From the bottom of the dresser drawer comes a garment, perhaps an infrequently worn T-shirt, that was dried outside. Its texture is different, it still has the clothespin marks on the shoulders, and, above all, it smells of having been dried in the fresh air.

Our sense of smell triggers strong memories, and the scent of line-dried clothing never fails to take me to an earlier time, perhaps only a few months ago, or many years ago. The memory may be of my grandmother in her back-porch chair, or of my children as babies, or of the places I have lived. The memories all have one thing in common, though: The grass is always green and the sun is always shining. That alone makes the many trips from the laundry room to the wash line worthwhile.

David J. Boyer writes from Ellicott City.

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