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    BWS Stories - "Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories

    "Born in the U.S.A."...Childhood Memories - Clotheslines That Bind

    Janet Dengel is a freelance editor and writer living in New Milford, NJ.

    Clotheslines That Bind

    Dyann and I are three years apart in age—not so huge a gap as adults but as children that span often seemed like a deep chasm not easily crossed. Except under the clothesline.

    Our mother, Jean, a stay-at-home housewife in the 50s and early 60s set household routines that you could rely on:  

    Monday: Wash Day/Meatloaf Day
    Tuesday: Ironing/Spaghetti and Meatballs
    Wednesday: Weeding and Gardening/Pork Chops or chicken and rice
    Thursday: Food Shopping/Hamburgers and fries
    Friday: Washing floors/Fish or Eggs Sunnyside-Up
    Saturday: Dust and vacuum/Leftovers
    Sunday: Church, family and rest    /Pot Roast or turkey with the works

    While I loved all the food, Dyann hated the vegetables and threw them on my plate when Mom wasn’t looking. I wish I could say I could even tolerate the chores—vacuuming and dusting was my domain and I was quite capable of ironing flat handkerchiefs. Dyann was a master at weeding and gardening (I would lay down on the grass and nap). Neither one of us could wash a floor that could stand up to inspection.  

    But wash day was divine. Of course, our mother was the one who collected the whites, darks and linens, hauled them downstairs in baskets, and did the actual operating of the machine. We waited “patiently” fighting over shared room territory until the loads were ready for hanging. The bleach, starch, Ivory Snow and Tide smelled better to me than the Channel No. 5 our mother wore on Saturdays.  

    The clothesline stretched ten feet from our bedroom to a gnarled apple tree in the backyard. Wooden clothespins, both spring-loaded and plain two-tined varieties, dangled in a mesh bag on the line. After lively discussion, it was decided that I would do the sorting, separating and handing; Dyann would do pinning and working the pulley system.  

    We took sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, undies, and blouses one at a time, shook them out gently, then clipped them onto the clothesline, making sure to affix the clothespin where it would make the least obvious mark. The pulley made a familiar squeak as the clothes inched across toward the apple tree, swaying in the breeze and arching in their own little dance of linen and lingerie.  

    Later on the process was reversed: clothes were taken down and put in the basket for Tuesday’s ironing if needed. Blouses would be hung up if they were woven of the “new” permanent press miracle fabrics and not “old-fashioned” cotton. And, a lesson from our mother was taught along with the chore: never hang out your dirty laundry for your neighbors to see!

    But this tale doesn’t end as a testament to chores with a moral thrown in for good measure. For two sisters, the best thing about the clothesline was on a Saturday when our mom would allow us to throw some old sheets over it and build huge tent cities. Dyann served as city planner and architect; I mostly ran in and out of the sheets letting them hit me in the face, making my hair stand up with electricity. We would enlarge the cotton blend home by extending it over the apple tree branches and a railing around the steps to the basement. Hours passed as we read Nancy Drew inside or invited friends to visit our temporary outside “apartment.”  

    As adults we said goodbye to clotheslines in favor of washer/dryers and to our mother two years ago. Her last years with Alzheimer’s disease made her forget all her housework skills—even setting a table was difficult for her, with spoons and forks upside down and napkins bunched instead of neatly folded. Settings for permanent press, delicates and pre-wash would be incomprehensible.  

    With careers, neither Dyann nor I follow any housework schedule worth noting, but we recently went on a cruise together and here was our schedule:

    Monday: Relax at sea
    Tuesday: Explore Athens, Greece
    Wednesday: Discover Kusadasi, Turkey
    Thursday: See the Knossos Palace in Crete
    Friday: Stroll the streets and villages of Corfu
    Saturday: Relax at sea
    Sunday: Have espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venice
    Monday: Take pictures of clotheslines in Venice

    Hold it—what was that last activity? Did two sisters who had once hung out the laundry together on Mondays now travel more than 4,000 miles to a breathtaking, inspiring city to take photos of other people’s clothes hanging out to dry? That day in Venice, I shared with Dyann an idea of mine for a coffee table book featuring all pictures of clotheslines. It would be a tribute to the extinct breed of housewife we had known in our mother before she joined the workforce.   

    After lively discussion we agreed that I would write the copy and she would take the photos. So we walked through Venice for five hours setting up shots of undies, handkerchiefs, sheets, pillowcases and blouses dancing on clotheslines reflected in canals and framed with flowerboxes and shuttered windows. Two sisters, sharing a room, doing the laundry.  


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