The river and the dress

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It seemed unlikely: I, of all people, had been appointed to the board of directors of our county public library. Our family rented a log cabin on the banks of the Big Laramie River, 23 miles from town. No running water. Electricity for lights and refrigerator, but no TV. A wood stove for cooking, heating water for washing, and heating the home. A pitcher pump stood at the edge of the cast-iron sink. With priming and furious pumping, it could be persuaded to spew out cold, cold water.

My husband, Roy, worked for a rancher. We'd chosen to live in this rustic setting. Brought up in suburbs, we told ourselves how much we valued simplicity and living close to nature.

But our lifestyle was more Spartan than we, or at least I, had envisioned. We pinched pennies and gratefully accepted castoffs for our four kids, all in grade school and growing weedily.

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Still, we liked the small but well-built, lodgepole-pine cabin nestled into the cottonwoods. The river provided constant and welcome background music. Passing deer peered into our windows. Coyotes howled in the foothills. Raccoons and occasionally a skunk shared our path to the privy. The kids took naturally to the outdoors - and brought a lot of it inside with them.

How could any of this relate to the weighty concerns of a board trustee? Was I chosen because we used the library so much, taking books home by the sackful? How would I fit in with the other board members - people of substance and stature, including a lawyer, a banker, and a college professor?

Even more distressing, what on earth would I wear?

Normally, I wore jeans, tennis shoes, and Roy's old shirts. Fancy dress for the local school and 4-H meetings amounted to clean work clothes. I still had a pair of high heels from before I was married. And I owned one dress: a tailored rose cotton shirtwaist with long sleeves and a full skirt. It fit well, looked pretty good, and would drip-dry without ironing. It would have to do.

But it needed washing. Normally, we'd bundle our clothes off to the laundromat in town. But this time - I don't recall why - an extra trip was not possible. I'd have to wash the dress in the river. I carried it and a plastic bottle of dish detergent down the path past the privy and along the riverbank.

Alders and shrub willows smell sweet, but sun-warmed and accented with wild roses and native grass, the perfumed air was glorious. I stopped often to close my eyes and breathe it in. At my favorite spot, the bank eased into the stream. Water slapped against the rocks.

Sunlight filtered through the tall cottonwoods on the south bank, turning their leaves into tiny panes of stained glass, and dappling the water with shade and sparkle. A soft breeze rode the river eastward.

I piled shoes and socks in the grass, rolled up my pants legs, and waded out onto rounded, water-worn stones, then paused to look upstream. The river promised so much. We never knew what might come around the bend, slide past, and disappear beyond the next bend - logs, mallards, a beach ball, beavers, a red shirt, kayakers. In the fall, millions of gold leaves flashed like spilled sequins on the ripples.

I crouched down to soak the dress, watched the rose turn deep maroon. I rubbed a few drops of soap into the soiled spots, then settled to serious washing, my feet cold in the water, my back hot in the sun. I became absorbed in my task, became conscious of being one of a timeless sisterhood, women of the Ganges, the Niger, the Huang Ho. Perhaps a pioneer woman had washed her dress here, her feet slipping on these same rocks.

Magpies squawked, and I laughed out loud at this absurdity. A library trustee, a member of a board of directors, washing her only dress in a river - surely the only trustee in Wyoming, the only trustee in the United States, maybe even the whole world, to wash her dress in a river, hang it to dry among the cottonwoods, and then wear it - straight-faced - to a board meeting.

There, I would attempt wit and competence. I would do so wrapped in the soft, fresh feel and scent of river water and wind. I would draw courage from the delicious secret of a cotton dress with the humble provenance of joy and beauty, hilarity and absurdity - and perhaps even a sense of destiny.

And I knew that this was right and good, just exactly as things should be.

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