My mother’s dream of death was a dream of laundry. She lies in bed and beside her sits the figure of her grandmother, who is folding towels, folding and folding and folding. My mother keeps saying “Ma, Ma, Ma.” Finally the figure stops folding and says to her, “I’m not Ma, I’m Death.” This could have been funny if she had laughed, if she had made fun of death for coming in such a familiar form. But she did not laugh. Her face when she told me of this dream was dark with horror and fear. I was 16 and I did not know what to say. She died not long after.
My mother hardly ever laughed, in fact, but she did when she sang me her grandmother’s clothes-washing song: “Does your mother ride a bike, ride a bike, ride a bike, in the middle of the night, of the night, of the night, with a baby on the handle-bars?” Scrub-and-scrub, scrub-and-scrub, scrub-and-scrub, up and down the washboard. My mother was 9 years old and her brother about 8 when her father said “I wash my hands of you” and threw them out of his house. Their mother had been dead for nearly 8 years. Where could two little children go? They went to their grandmother’s, where my mother ironed shirts for her nine uncles. Sometimes one of them gave her a quarter.
We did not have a clothes dryer when I was growing up. Maybe this was a matter of money; maybe my mother believed laundry should be hung outside to be healthy, or that women should hang it to be dutiful. She hung basket after basket of laundry in the blazing Florida sun. She complained sometimes, but she never once asked any of us to help her, nor did we ever offer. Sometimes she wore a washcloth soaked in cold water on her head to protect herself from the heat.
When she ironed, she put a small pillow on the hard terrazzo floor and stood on it to ease her feet. Soon after she died, I ironed shirts for my father and brother. Why did they not iron their own shirts? I don’t know. What I knew about ironing I knew from watching my mother. She taught my brother to iron, so he could take care of himself before he found a wife. She did not teach me. I ironed twelve shirts and I was overwhelmed and angry. My brother would wear the cream-colored dress shirt to his high-school graduation dinner. His girlfriend was my age exactly but beautiful, sophisticated, artistically talented, sexually advanced. The man I live with irons his own shirts. He offers to iron things for me. Sometimes I iron something for him.
Once, in a sloping green backyard in Vermont in early summer, I saw lines full of beautiful laundry, textures of blue floating against a soft blue sky. How could someone achieve such grace and purity merely by hanging laundry on a line? Did they intend for their laundry to be beautiful? In his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” Richard Wilbur says, “let there be fresh laundry for the backs of thieves,” and he talks about nuns in their billowing habits, “keeping their delicate balance.” You can keep this balance on a laundry line. My mother did not know how.
When my brother’s son was born, he and his wife lived on the second floor of an old apartment building in Seattle. The laundry was in the basement. This meant for Lisa many trips up and down the stairs, struggling with the weight of laundry, the weight of marriage. Once, when Max was 2, his mother went to bring up yet another load. We heard soft voices on the stairs, hers and the baby’s, and she came in carrying her son on top of the family’s clean, dry clothing. My nephew is a beautiful child of great sensitivity and surpassing sweetness. I wish for him that he may always have such good luck with laundry.
photo by cohdra, text copyright elizabeth nash 2014
Categories: My Poetry & Essays About Clothes