By Ross Howell
Ross followed a career in academic fundraising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction, and teaching at Elon University. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot, and rescued pit bull Lab mix Sam.
In 1956 my mother Rachel moved back to the farm in Virginia where she was born. She was 41 years old and finished with a drunk for a husband. With the cash her sister mailed her, she bought bus tickets and made the cross-country trip from Richland, Washington, two kids in tow.
The old home place was on the Blue Ridge plateau. There was electricity and running water drawn from the spring house my grandfather had built. There was telephone service on a party line. There was TV with an antenna mounted atop a locust pole by the meat house where we cured hams. There was an electric range in the kitchen perpendicular to a wood-burning cook stove and an electric hot water heater and refrigerator by the old kitchen hearth. These were real amenities in those days in that part of the world.
There was one other electrical appliance, a washing machine in the spring house. A cast iron kettle once used to cook apples or sorghum was hung over a stone hearth. At daybreak my mother poured water from the spring basin into the kettle, five or six brimming milk pails. Then she went to the wood house for kindling and wood. She carried them to the hearth, added old newspapers and struck a wooden match from a box by the hearth.
The crackling fire was always cheerful, even in summer. Firelight glittered over the spring trough where my mother cooled milk from her cows in fifteen-gallon galvanized cans. Once the fire was going, she banked the coals and gathered two milk pails. Her wash day began like every other day. She walked to the barn to milk by hand two Holsteins and a Guernsey cow.
With my help she finished milking in a half hour, carrying the pails to the spring house. She strained the milk into cans, gave the barn cat foam and milk from the strainer, poured milk into a Mason jar for me to carry to the refrigerator, and cleaned the pails and strainer.
We carried the laundry, bundled in sheets the evening before, from the back porch to the spring house. She always did her sheets, pillowcases, towels, and washcloths first, since they would dry quickly on the clotheslines, leaving room for slow-drying garments like jeans and overalls.
Steam rose from the big kettle. My mother rolled the washing machine from the corner to its position by the spring trough and plugged it in. She always wore big rubber galoshes. The washing machine’s electrical cord in the wet spring house could give a tingle and sometimes a jolt to anyone handling it.
With a clean pail she dipped water from the kettle into the washing machine, then added detergent. She turned the dial and the agitator began to oscillate. As suds sloshed over the paddles, she loaded her sheets. She used a big wooden spoon—like the kettle, once used to make applesauce or molasses—to arrange the sheets in the scalding water.
My mother liked to sing as she worked. She was a small woman, barely five feet tall, but she had a big soprano voice. “What a friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear!” she sang.“Gah-wump, gah-wump,” the agitator grumbled. “I come to the garden alone, / While the dew is still on the roses.” “Gah-wump, gah-wump.” After ten minutes or so, she’d turn the dial to stop the machine. Then she’d lower a black rubber hose hooked to the side of the tub. Soapy water spilled onto the floor of the spring house and out into the creek.
When the tub had drained, she refastened the hose and added cold water from the spring basin. When she had the amount she wanted, she started the agitator to rinse the load. After a few minutes, she stopped the machine and drained the tub. Now came my favorite part.
Mother swung the wringer over the tub and locked it in place. With a lever she engaged the rollers and began to feed a soggy sheet between them. As rinse water spurted from the wringer, I stood on the opposite side guiding the sheet, now flattened and stiff, into the laundry basket. For some boyish reason this metamorphosis intrigued me.
Once all the pieces had been through the wringer, we were ready to take the laundry basket out to the clotheslines. On this journey we were accompanied by a barn cat or my farm dog or sometimes both. Neither much liked treading the damp ground to the clotheslines. They’d stop at the last big rock of the footpath, watching from the dry stone.
By afternoon she was ready to begin her ironing. She’d make a cold meal of cornbread and milk, set up her ironing board in the room where we kept the TV, and watch her favorite soap operas while she ironed.
My mother ironed everything—shirts, pants, dresses, slacks, T-shirts, undershorts, socks. The clothes I wore to school were crisp and full of sunshine. When I boarded the bus, I knew the world was a grand place, where every child wore spotlessly clean, neatly pressed underwear.
The first load I removed from the dryer in the basement of my college dorm laundry changed that world view forever. My underclothes looked gray and rumpled, even after I folded them. My socks crackled with static and clung sullenly together. I couldn’t iron a shirt collar without a crease.
At that moment I longed for the sound of my mother singing in the musty spring house on wash day. I could see her taking brilliantly clean sheets from her clotheslines, big rubber galoshes swallowing her ankles—a dog and cat her spectators. And when her episodes of As the World Turns and The Days of Our Lives were over and her ironing was folded, three cows stood at the barn waiting to be milked before supper.
What chores make you nostalgic for your mom?