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The Lore of Laundry

Rhona Lewis

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nature and wildlife surrounded me in Kenya; laundry did not.

Wide, sweeping plains of dry, yellowing savannah grass; shoals of angle fish, zebra fish and tiny, almost colorless fish that darted between the coral clumps; the dusky stillness of sunset at a lakeside — they all formed a part of my childhood.

Laundry did not.

I never, ever, loaded a washing machine or dryer. I never hung up a load of wet clothing. I never folded a sock. I never ironed a single shirt. The closest I came to dealing with laundry was putting my clothes in the sisal basket outside the bathroom, and then packing them away the following evening when my clothing appeared in a neat, ironed pile at the end of my bed.

Some days I would watch our houseboy, Pascali, washing our clothes by hand in the bathtub. He would empty the laundry basket into the tub. Then he would sprinkle in Omo, a blue washing powder, and then he would turn on the taps. I watched as the water rushed in and pushed the clothes to the surface. Pascali knelt down, bent over the tub, and methodically punched every item under the swirling mass of water and suds. One by one, he scrubbed the clothes, the sheets, the towels. Our white school socks, dyed a rusty red from the dusty murram tracks we often wandered along, emerged brilliantly white. The tub was emptied, the laundry rinsed, and every item wrung out and tossed into a waiting basket.

Finally, he would carry the load to the washing lines behind our house. I followed behind bearing the peg bag that my mother had stitched. The clothes were strung up in descending order of size: first the sheets and towels; next the shirts, pants, and socks; and then, like flags raised at the end of a ceremony, my father’s handkerchiefs would be pegged up to flutter in the breeze.

We lived close to the railway line, so Pascali lived in dread of the massive pillars of black clouds belched out by the steam engines that regularly rolled past. With every train that rumbled by, a low, resigned sigh would escape his lips; I knew he was thinking of the pristine white he had worked so hard to achieve.

When I moved to Israel, I learned to deal with the laundry. Shortly after our wedding, my husband discovered that his now snugly fitting clothes had little to do with the lavish meals we had been served throughout sheva brachos, and much to do with my inadequacies as a laundress. He gently pointed out that a washing machine is not a bathtub, that labels must be read, and that pockets must be checked. Barely had I mastered these rules, when the family began to grow, and laundry began to pile up faster than the monsoon winds and higher than Mount Kenya.

I never had trouble actually loading the machine. After all, washing clothes was so easy compared to what I saw as a child. If I managed to throw in a load before I woke the children, I felt the wheels of a successful day already rolling — even though the machine lacked Pascali’s knack, and my children’s white socks were never the snow white I recalled from my childhood. But the next stage in the laundry process left me floundering: clothing was often draped over dining-room chairs waiting to be put away, and shirts were ironed when the last one landed in the laundry bin.

Now that the older children have grown up, the laundry process is shared between us: I load the machine and hang out the laundry; they do the rest. So once again, most evenings I can happily pack away the clothes that have wended their way to the end of my bed!

Without the pressure of the entire job on me, I have had a chance to reflect. The time I spend hanging up the clothes in the crisp morning air has become the barometer by which I gauge the growth of my younger children: at first they crawl around my feet; next they hand me pegs and pull items out of the basket; and then, when they can jabber the names of their siblings, they delight in calling out the owner of each item as I peg it up.

And it goes further. With the challenges of colored versus whites, different machine cycles, and ironing behind me, doing the laundry has become so easy that it’s almost boring. How many times can I put the same pair of pants into the machine and hang them out again? This is when I realized that the pair of pants I laundered yesterday was not the same pair of pants I’m laundering today. Yesterday’s pants belonged to a boy who knew ten letters of the alef-beis. Today they belong to a boy who know eleven letters. A subtle change, maybe. But it makes all the difference.

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