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Times Past: Mystery of Laundry

LaundryStanding in the grocery aisle I stare helplessly at bright plastic containers labeled with biblical promises to remove my stains. Nearing the half century mark and I still have no idea how to do laundry properly.

Women’s work. Historically this is true. Soiled doves, the frontier prostitutes of mining camps often began their careers between the sheets by first washing them. A woman in need of money could always find work in a mining camp washing men’s union suits and socks. Even Sarah Shull, a competent accountant, had to find work as a laundress in the mining town of Denver, Colorado after Cobb McCanless was killed and she no longer had a benefactor. His widow certainly wasn’t going to take her in, dirty laundry as Sarah was to the family.

But this is not a historical reflection. Writer, Irene Waters, calls us to reflect on Times Past in our own lives. She asks if laundry is women’s work. This intriguing monthly prompt is a generational and geographical comparison. So let me state, I’m a Gen-Xer and I grew up in rural California.

My mother was the queen of the laundry. Why, I have puzzled all month until the point I can delay no more (or miss the chance to participate). As a child, my parents practiced the typical slave labor of ranching or farming families. The idea was to birth many hands to work the fields or cattle. My father changed it up a bit by only having one set of hands. Also, he traded his cowboy boots for logger’s corks and he bought my mother a store to run in a town of 99 people (for those of you who follow the flash fiction at Carrot Ranch, yes, I just realized the connection, too).

The store was an old mercantile built the same year as our house: 1861. It catered to winter skiers and summer campers, a true mountain tourist town. We lived summers in my father’s logging camps and I worked for the ranch that encircled our small town with summer pastures. I did everything as a kid — stacked cordwood, bagged ice, pushed cattle, cleaned dishes by hand, stocked shelves and fed our horses hay. But never was I tasked with laundry.

As far back as I recall we always had a modern washer and dryer. My mother did the laundry as if it were some homage to my father. His family was big on cleanliness and town clothes had to be spotless. My mother used liquids from various jugs to whip up some sort of cleaning cocktail of which she never revealed its secret. Thus my extenuating befuddlement regarding laundry.

No one ever taught me.

Thrust on my own, I had to use the laundromat with coin operated behemoths. I bought Tide because it’s what my mother used, but all the other ingredients seemed redundant to me. Of course, my clothes began to look dingy. Not that I was particular about that. I had children and discovered the dreaded laundry monster, an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes where items morphed like mold. Where did all those clothes come from? Never did I cater to my spouse the way my mother did. By the time my kids could reach the wash machine lid and understood the dryer wasn’t a carnival ride, my family was on their own!

To this day, I’m stumped buying laundry detergent, trying to figure out which ones will really set me free. Besides, I sneak my clothes into my husband’s loads. Woman’s work? Not if I can help it!