Every era has its luxuries and necessities. For most women in the 1950s, a clothesline was a necessity. Electric wringer washers could squeeze laundry nearly dry as it was fed through the wringer bars, but “nearly dry” wasn’t good enough. House linens and clothing needed to be completely dried after laundering. Since gas or electric automatic clothes dryers still were uncommon in homes, the laundry - damp, heavy and wrinkled from its pass through the wringers - was hung on clotheslines prior to being readied for the iron, or folded into closets and drawers.
One of the earliest discussions I remember hearing between my father and mother centered on the purchase of a new clothesline. We had an oversized back yard, part of a delicious corner l0t-and-a-half, but there was no convenient space for the standard wires and poles. No matter which location my father suggested, there was an obstacle. To the east, three sour cherry trees clustered around the sandbox. Close enough to drop their harvest into the hands of playmates in the heavy summer heat, they were low enough for even the most timid child to climb and rest undisturbed in their branches. At the north end of the cherries, a cluster of crabapple trees edged up to the sidewalk; to the south, rhubarb and patches of gone-to-seed asparagus fanned out across the yard.
Even toward the west, there was no room. The flower beds edging the sidewalk along the side of the house were inviolable. Filled with forsythia and pussy willow in the spring, overflowing with summer hollyhock, flowering with almond, bridal wreath and lilac in their time, they weren’t about to be moved for a clothesline. There was a long grassy swath that ran between the cherries and the hollyhocks which might have worked, but we played croquet there in the summer, and threw footballs in the fall. The only reasonable spot for a traditional clothesline involved placing one pole at the sidewalk’s edge. That, too, was unacceptable. No one feared passing strangers would steal the laundry, but hanging one’s clothing nearly in the face of passers-by seemed to violate one of those unwritten rules about acceptable public behavior that governed life in the fifties.
Eventually, a solution was found. An ingenious person had invented a four-sided, rotating clothes line, and my father purchased one. The very picture of modernity, it not only saved space, collapsing onto itself to save even more space if necessary, it was labor-saving as well. If you didn’t feel like carrying your heavy basket filled with sheets, bluejeans or towels around its perimeter, you simply could spin the line and begin pinning clothes again without leaving your spot.
There were rules for using that clothes line, too. Unwritten and unspoken, they were followed by scores of women up and down the blocks in scores of tiny towns. The long, outside lines were for sheets, doubled and hung with extra pins in the middle to keep them secure. The next, shorter lines were meant for towels, blouses, shorts and shirts, hung close to each other with each pin holding the edge of two items. And the tiniest lines, the hidden lines nearest the center pole, were for “unmentionables”, both male and female. Once the sheets or towels had been hung, shy young clothes-hangers could stand inside their cotton fort, sheltered from embarassment as they pinned up mama’s bras and daddy’s boxer shorts in peace.
When I was a child, helping to hang summer laundry was all taste and smell and sound – the rough woody dryness of clothespins in my mouth, the sweetness of clover crushed by bare feet, freshening breezes snapping towels to warn of building afternoon storms. “Get the clothes!”, mothers chirped from their back doors and windows. ”There’s rain coming!” And small armies of youngsters obeyed, pulling piles of fragrance from the lines, burying their faces in freshness and warmth as they raced toward the safety of the house.
In winter, it was different. In winter, there was snow instead of clover, and icy winds blew gentler breezes to the south. In winter, lines were strung across the basement in disorderly webs and laundry was left to dry as it would. The drying process was encouraged by heat from a furnace barely visible in the shadows cast by low-hanging bulbs. But deprived of sunlight and eddies of wind, the clothes hung limp and motionless as they waited for evaporation to do its work. In the end, they emerged from the process dry but stiff and board-like, with no hint of fragrance, no freshness, no overtones of clover, lilac or rain to stir the senses.
Left in the basement with a basket of clothes to hang in that strange, half-darkened world, I often chose to swing on a little board hung from the rafters with unraveling sisal, or find my skate key and skates, or sit on the bottom step with a book. Every now and then my mother would yell down the stairs, “Have you hung up those clothes yet?” ”In a minute,” I’d murmur, neither lazy nor obstinate, but simply overcome by ennui. Hanging clothes that way – alone, in the half-dark, with no freshening breezes or companion birds, seemed a perfect waste of my life.
Today, I remember those feelings. Sitting before me like overflowing baskets of laundry, my life requires attention, demands energy and time, cries for completion like the myriad tasks that fill up my days. Unlike a child granted freedom to ignore assigned chores, I can’t ignore my life. Like a tumbled-up pile of stockings and shirts waiting for the wash, it reeks of reality. It is here, and it is now, and there is no choice but to live.
When any of us confronts our particular pile of tumbled-up life, how we choose to live becomes the question. Like petulant children unhappy with responsibility, we’re perfectly free to throw our lives into a bin of darkness and leave them there to moulder like so much sodden laundry. Tossed behind doors fashioned of deceit, stuffed into corners of falsehood, overflowing spaces already cluttered by prejudice, bitterness and rage, uncared-for lives fade and fray every day. Edging along life’s shadows, feeling their way through a half-darkened world, more than a few among us attempt to pin imagined insults, personal slights and indignities on others, and even more appear to be nursing an infinite grudge against the universe. Crouched behind fortifications flimsy as a clothes-lined sheet, they make their choices. But as days stretch on, those who decide for darkness often discover their choice can evaporate joy and harden spirits in a perfect waste of life.
To paraphrase William Faulkner’s famous phrase only slightly, anyone can endure, but not everyone will prevail. If life - full, human life - is to prevail, the light of truth, the wind of freedom’s spirit and the fragrance of the world’s gifts are not luxuries. They are necessities, and they are children of the coming Solstice.
In the natural order, Winter Solstice sings this truth: life longs to return to light. And while it is true the sun has no choice and seasons decide nothing, while it is a fact the Heavens travel an immutable course while Earth sings her ageless song, we are not so constrained and our path is not so certain. As the sun begins its long, passionate rise into summer and light returns to the world, our eyes may rejoice in the vision, but our spirits are faced with a choice. Will we consign our days to winter’s frigid depths, or will we embrace the delights of summer? Will we pin our hopes on lines of truth, or settle for threads of falsehood? Are we courageous enough to stand in the light? Or do we prefer to stagnate in darkness? The quality of our lives depends upon our answers to such questions, and the coming Solstice reminds us that unlike the sun, the heavens and all its stars, fulfilling our human nature depends on the freedom of responsible choice.
In the end, life will be lived and life will end, no matter our choices. But before that end, there always is opportunity for our choices to bring us fuller, more deeply human life. Breathing in silence between heaven and earth, waiting patiently for time to turn and light to rise, the world waits no less to witness our choice – for darkness or for light.