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Times Past: Mystery of Laundry
Standing 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!
Times Past: Food From the Sea
Generation X, Rural Northern California
Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.
When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is: The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.
I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.
The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.
On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.
Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.
Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.
And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.