Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.
Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers.
Unfortunately, and despite our relatively spacious back yard, the typical poles and wires of the first clothesline I remember couldn’t hold more than a small load of laundry because of natural constraints.
To the east, three cherry trees clustered around my sandbox, close enough to drop their harvest into our hands in the heavy summer heat and low enough for even my most timid friend to climb into their branches. North of the cherries, a cluster of crabapple trees edged up to the sidewalk; to the south, rhubarb and asparagus patches fanned out across the yard.
Even toward the west, there was little room for clothesline expansion. The flower beds edging the sidewalk along the side of the house were inviolable. Filled with forsythia and pussy willow in spring, overflowing with summer hollyhocks and zinnias, they weren’t about to be moved. A long, grassy swath running between the cherries and the hollyhocks might have worked, but we needed it for croquet in the summer and snow forts in winter.
For a year or two, my parents discussed solutions to the problem. It would have been reasonable to expand the clothesline by placing one pole at the very edge of the sidewalk, but my mother refused. She didn’t fear theft, but hanging laundry nearly in the face of passers-by clearly violated one of those unwritten rules governing life in the nineteen-fifties: “Thou shalt not display thy undergarments in public — even on a clothesline.”
Eventually, my father discovered that an ingenious person had invented a four-sided, rotating clothesline. Always eager to embrace new technologies, he purchased one — after convincing my mother it not only would save space, but would be labor-saving as well. If we weren’t inclined to drag heavy baskets filled with sheets, bluejeans, and towels around the clothesline’s perimeter, we could spin the line and continue pinning clothes without leaving our chosen spot.
In time, those rotating clotheslines began to appear in other backyards, and rules for using them — unwritten and unspoken — developed among the neighborhood women. The longer, outside lines were for sheets, doubled and hung with extra pins in the middle to keep them secure. The next, shorter lines were reserved for towels, blouses, shorts, and shirts: hung close but not taut, with each pin holding the edge of two items.
Of course the smallest lines, the ones hidden away near the center pole, held the ‘unmentionables.’ Once the sheets or towels had been hung, shy young helpers could stand inside their cotton fort, sheltered from embarassment as they pinned up mama’s bras and daddy’s boxer shorts in blissful isolation.
As a child, I delighted in hanging summer laundry. The rough, woody dryness of clothespins in my mouth and the fragrance of sweet clover crushed beneath the basket were pleasing, and the freshening breezes, stirring and snapping towels before building afternoon storms, added a bit of excitement. When mothers chirped from back doors and windows, “Get the clothes! There’s rain coming!” 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, snow replaced clover, and icy winds blew gentler breezes to the south. In winter, lines criss-crossed the dimly lit basement in disorderly webs, and laundry was left to dry as it would.
The drying process was encouraged by heat from the coal-burning furnace, but, deprived of sunlight and eddies of wind, the clothes hung limp and motionless, waiting for evaporation to do its work. In the end, they emerged from the process stiff and board-like: dry, but with no hint of fragrance; no freshness; no overtones of clover, lilac, or rain to stir the senses.
Sent to the basement to hang a basket of clothes in that strange, half-darkened world, I often chose to swing on the little board hung from the rafters, roller-skate around the furnace, or sit on the bottom step with a book. Occasionally, my mother checked on my progress. “Are the clothes hung yet?” “In a minute,” I’d murmur, overcome by a combination of ennui, resentment, and denial. Hanging clothes that way – alone, in the half-dark, with no freshening breezes or companion birds — seemed a perfect waste of life. If I wait long enough, I thought, someone else will hang the laundry.
Today, in the midst of a world that sometimes appears as dank and constricted as our winter basement, I remember those feelings. Like overflowing baskets of laundry waiting to be hung, the challenges surrounding us require attention; they demand energy and time; and they can’t be put off forever.
Confronted by these seemingly endless piles of tumbled-up life, more than a few among us seem willing to live as petulant children: unhappy with responsibility, and more than ready to leave the sodden laundry of their lives for others to deal with.
But as childhood chores give way to adult responsibilities, both the freedom and the necessity of choice become clear. In the absence of light, will we find ways to work in darkness? Will we pin our hopes on sturdy lines of truth, or settle for threads of falsehood? Are we courageous enough to accept scrutiny? Or will we huddle within a self-constructed fortress that obscures our true convictions? The quality of our lives depends upon the answers to such questions
In 1950, a year in which I only was beginning to help my mother at the clothesline, William Faulkner offered his own answer in a speech accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature. Although his words might seem to be directed primarily to writers, they apply to us all; somewhat ironically, they could apply even to the Nobel Committee itself, which cancelled this year’s prize due to scandal.
The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about: worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Today, there’s not a clothespin in my house. Local homeowners’ associations have banned clotheslines, and the fragrance of sun-dried laundry is only a memory. But if customs change, the “old verities and truths of the heart” remain. We’d do well to attend to them.
Comments always are welcome.