A Little Deception Colors the Laundry

On the dusty prairies of my childhood, the metal wash bucket and the weekly ritual of doing the laundry was something we didn't welcome on our Saturdays off from school.

But that was going to change, for Mother had won a washing machine in a drawing at the local co-op store.

They delivered it Saturday morning, gleaming white and shiny. Mother, who had never had a brand-new appliance before, took a chenille cloth to it and rubbed and murmured to it, like a mother dove cooing to her chick. She was in rapture of the modern convenience.

My sisters and I brought down the loads of laundry with ear-to-ear smiles on our freckled faces, dreaming of all the fun we would have this Saturday, now that we were free. Free at last!

When Mother saw us coming with the dirty piles of clothes and the flies circling like vultures, she backed up, horrified. She put her hands protectively on her new machine and told us in no uncertain terms the way it was going to be: Dirty laundry wouldn't touch her new possession until some of the dirt had been removed.

Our jaws dropped. We questioned our mother's sanity, but she would not be swayed. She spread her apron and shooed us out, and then she started muttering strange coos of comfort to the new household inconvenience. We were fit to be tied.

We had a washboard and a scrub brush, and before our clothes were given to that newfangled contraption in the basement, the week's worth of dirt, dust, and mud had to be rubbed out on the washboard's antiquated metal ridges. Pulling the clothes up and down, getting a good froth worked up from my mother's homemade lye soap, we worked away precious hours of our Saturday. Who needed clean clothes, anyway? Starched and itchy collars and pants that could stand up on their own in the center of the room? Pleated skirts that had to have the pleats re-ironed, taking up part of our Sunday as well!

Our hands become red and swollen, even though we switched off every few minutes, and the tendons in our arms were pulled as tight as piano wires on the school upright. We called Mother and asked her if the laundry was "good enough" to go into the washing machine.

But Mother wouldn't look at the mountain of wet clothes in the wicker basket. Mother had her own way, a "scientific" way of judging if our efforts were adequate. She'd take a quart jar and dip out some of the tepid water.

With the eye of a botanist scrutinizing a sample for a new type of fungus, she'd cautiously hem and haw, then shake her head. We'd go back at the pile, starting over again.

Eventually, we caught on to Mother's way. It wasn't so much the cleanliness of the clothes as the color of the water. Mother could tell how much we'd been scrubbing and how much we'd been fooling around, making soap clouds and blowing them in each other's hair, just by the shade of the water.

Now wise to this, I was sent (while my mother's back was turned) to the far-off garden for a pocketful of topsoil to give the wash water the proper tint.

This worked for quite a few Saturdays, and we enjoyed the leisure time it brought, making homemade kites to fly, or fooling my brother into eating mud pies shaped like cupcakes.

Everything seemed to be under control until one day in early spring. I saw a wonderful pile of dank, dark dirt closer than the garden, having been delivered by one of the local farmers only that week.

It seemed to me a long distance to travel, all the way to the garden, when this dark, large pile would do just as well. I was always one to look for a shorter, easier way, and I was sure my sisters would be pleased. This should cut down my traveling time, thus getting the laundry water the appropriate shade for our freedom.

I scooped up some of the fragrant dirt and carried it back. My sisters were lying on the grass, deciding which cloud looked like which animal, when I deposited the dirt into the soapy water.

Once added to the water, however, the soil took on it an odor all its own.

It was not the harsh perfume of Mother's homemade lye soap, but the strange earthy smell that the field hands often had after preparing the fields for seeding. The fumes rose from the washtub and sauntered throughout the house, where Mother had been baking. Mother came out holding her apron to her nose and looked at the water. Then she looked at the manure pile and my dirty hands, which I had plunged into my even dirtier pockets.

The look in Mother's eyes said it all. We were well and truly caught.

I WAS sent inside for a bath, my clothes confiscated. Once my sisters had been chastised and sent to the far corner of the yard to dump out the potent soup, the clothes were started again. My fragrant overalls were added to the pile.

Yes, even decades after the incident, when my girls moan at the family table about doing the laundry, my parents still wink and retell the tale for my children. And I am thankful for all the lessons I learned, about the folly of doing half a job and lying around while the week's laundry waits downstairs. About always checking the water before you get in too deep, and about being wary of closer piles, especially in the spring.

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