Life at the other end of the chute

As a young child, I would often lie awake in the early mornings and listen for the sounds of life - the low, reassuring undercurrent of parents already astir. It might be a muffled voice, the unlatching of the front door to bring in the paper, or the crisp crackle as breakfast was cooked. My dad was a bacon-and-eggs man, and I'd often lie abed, not yet awake enough to be hungry, content to drink in the sounds of sustenance.

Sometimes I first knew that my mom was up when I heard the distinctive click of the laundry chute's opening and closing in the kitchen, which was right below the little bedroom my sister and I shared when our grandparents visited from Miami (or "Mommy's Ami," as I thought of it then). Nan and Gran occupied our larger bedroom, while Barb and I moved down the hall to the room with the second-story opening to the laundry chute.

On my last visit home, I slept in the little room again. It occurred to me, when I heard the familiar clicks one early morning, that the laundry chute is something of an icon of my childhood.

Notwithstanding its humble role as a conduit for dirty clothes and dishtowels from bedrooms and kitchen to the basement wash basket, it had always had a certain presence. It had always been wonderfully responsive: Dirty clothes went down, clean ones reappeared on one's dresser. What fine mystery.

There's another side (or end) to the story, of course. A correspondent of mine recently wrote of a memory from her own child-raising years. Her neighbor, also the mother of several children, called Bonnie one evening with glad and impressive tidings - her laundry chute was empty! Possibly for the first time in months, she was caught up with the labor at the other end of her children's casual tossing, into imagined oblivion, of their soiled garments. It takes a dedicated family launderer to understand that praise was due.

Since my own close association with laundry chutes harks back to childhood (I do not have one in my present home), what I remember most fondly is the deeply satisfying feeling of the drop (away with it!) as dirty clothes disappeared - and the pleasant sound of descending wads of jeans, shirts, pajamas. To me, that dry swoosh ! always evoked a clean gust of wind over a high plain.

I first missed it, and most acutely, when I went away to college. On a freshman picnic I grass-stained a favorite pair of pants. My first thought - the chute - fell pathetically flat. It was 250 miles away. This, to me, smacked of a most unfair finale to childhood.

As kids, we respected certain ground rules. For example, no sneakers allowed. The thundering passage of the tiniest tennis shoe along the tin walls of the chute had a riveting effect on unprepared ears. For a few brief, panicky moments, the mind leapt to images of a collapsing wall or exploding furnace. As far as Mom was concerned, we could jolly well carry dirty shoes to the basement under our own steam.

Also, no clothes bundles larger than the chute could handle. A few sessions with yardsticks and broom handles convinced us of this wisdom. And, finally, no left-open lids and no promised thrills for little brothers. My suggestion that Dave would fit perfectly and have a marvelous slide down did not play well with anyone but Dave, who back then had no idea I was anything but older and infinitely wiser.

Today, I carry my own family's clothes from the hall hamper to the basement down steep steps, around the storage shelves, and past the furnace and hot-water heater to the washing machine. It seems a long way to go for the task of laundering. I might not think so if I'd been raised without a chute, but of course, I was. And I miss its presence and convenience.

At least the living memory awaits me on my visits home. Even if I am, often, the one on its working end, I still get the thrill and clean-slate feeling of the drop. And I believe even now I can hear that wind gusting over some high plain.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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