But mostly, that clothesline.
I won't pretend that I keep a clothesline for environmental reasons, although that's a bonus. Something about hanging clothes outside to dry makes me feel more grounded to the earth. In better rhythm with life. As if I've got all the time in the world.
It's about the tactile experience too. The delicious elements of grass, sunshine, breeze, mild exertion and fragrant, clean clothes somehow add up to everything made new again. Out there with a mouthful of wooden pins, snapping wet sheets, I sometimes entertain a fantasy. Here I am, I think, resourceful, resilient pioneer woman on some lonesome, windswept prairie.
All that from a single line of rope stretched between two fixed points.
It's easy for me, with my programmable, energy-efficient gas dryer, to romanticize what used to be an endless drudgery for women, usually on Mondays — the washing, the hanging, the spritzing with water, the bundling into plastic bags for ironing in front of the radio or, later, The Ed Sullivan Show.
Like most domestic arts in my mother's era, the clothesline was a stage for one's competency or lack thereof. Protocol dictated sheets and towels on the outside lines to hide the delicates hanging on the inside. And, of course, dingy whites prompted a laundry list of whispered appraisals.
Once when I was an infant, my mother scolded my father who, in an effort to relieve her workload while caring for four kids, washed my diapers and hung them outside on the line to dry. She worried it made her look like a less-than-capable homemaker. When she relayed this story to me as an old woman, she sighed. "I don't know what I was thinking," she said.
The clothesline tethers me to a powerful memory of my own. On my desk I keep a snapshot of my long-dead neighbor's clothesline, three deep and stretched between cast iron posts sunk in concrete, complete with prop poles to prevent sagging. Unlike my haphazard affair, it was a proper clothesline, a serious thing of beauty and utility made by her husband. She let me use it anytime I pleased.
The picture captures the unmistakable sway and billow of clean laundry, some of it mine, waving in a summer breeze. Next to her husband's work shirts dangling like upside down acrobats are my blue-and-white checked bedspread and a frayed flannel quilt I had just bought for $2 at a garage sale, sun illuminating its jewel-colored patches as if through stained glass.
The quilt fell apart soon after, I remember, too moth-eaten and fragile to withstand washing. But this memory of a woman, both friend and grandmother-by-proxy, remains crisp as a freshly pressed handkerchief.
Together, we released a fragrant sheet from the line. Each of us holding two corners, we'd dance that ageless clothesline ballet: stepping forward, fingers touching, releasing, exchanging, folding, stepping back, stepping forward. Slowly our baskets filled with neat piles of cotton that, when opened, would exhale sunshine itself.
"Why run the dryer when Mother Nature does a better job?" she used to say.
It was on one of those blue-sky days at the clothesline that my friend announced she had leukemia that would eventually take her life. I remember my gratitude for the ritual of bending and stretching, folding and refolding, the soft click of clothespins landing in a plastic basket. Small, familiar motions that helped fill the empty spaces left by the clothes coming off the line, gave me another moment to restore the breath that caught in my throat, to blink back the sting of tears. I knew she didn't want to see me cry.
Maybe this is why the clothesline embeds itself so deeply in me, a primal tug to pay attention. Folded into the simple act of hanging wet laundry is a keen awareness of the beginning of the end of one life and the ongoing, ordinary miracle of mine. That supple connection stretched between two points. I take in the fresh oxygen filling every fiber, the wondrous machinery of my legs and arms, my hip holding this basket as if it weighed nothing at all.
I pin my heavy wash on the line like notes of grief and gladness. I hum a washday song. I've got all the time the world has to give.