My mother would hang her laundry outside in winter.
Half a foot of Pennsylvania snow did not deter Anne from Washday Monday in her ankle boots, subduing half-frozen bed sheets with a precise number and spacing of clothespins. She’d often have one or two extra, emergency pins tucked in the corner of her mouth. From the kitchen window she looked like a poorly dressed Churchill smoking spring-loaded wooden cigars, scowling with focus.
Never did anyone question my mother’s laundry regimen, including my grandmother who was the source of the Masonic-like secrets of bluing and pre-soaking. But, her daughter and my mother, Anne believed that a good defense should not be wasted waiting for a good offense. “Fresh air kills germs!” she’d announce above the wind forgetting that, at no time in memory, had she ever tossed a flu ridden family member into the maw of winter for the same cure.
Boots stomped snow less, Anne would make her way inside to the warm air good enough to breathe but not good enough to dry dads work shirts. She straightaway filled the kitchen sink with cool and then warmer water, dunking her ice-stiff red and white hands in much the same manner that she used to speed-thaw a chicken. Anne’s winter war face had been replaced by a high, healthy pink—her glowing reward for besting winter’s worst in the name of a fresh, clean smell.
It was only later in life that I remembered that smell because it was missing. Headstrong technology and a timesaver generation had machine-dried and drained away the vivid scent of the natural world that my mother had worked so hard to infuse in our daily fabrics.
Unless provoked by reoccurrence, it is not easy to remember a smell. It takes all four remaining senses to engage this fifth one: An August scorched little girl half hearing a bedtime story under crackly-cool sheets. A shivery winter bath and stepping into the hug of my grandmother holding my princess towel cloak. The smell returned, for just a moment, whole and full. I had the fresh air that killed germs next to my skin.
As pleasant a memory as that was, for many years more, I acquiesced. Dryers after the advent of dryer sheets were too easy to use to ignore. I was not a child. It was just a smell. Clotheslines became tacky and even illegal eyesores in some American neighborhoods. And then I moved to India where…
…soaped clothes were hard-slapped on laundry stones or sometimes spun dry, begging for a slow bake finish in the sun. Flag fat saris hung and snapped from every porch and rooftop. Clotheslines were acceptable, innumerable, irreplaceable. The toil of washing inconvenience had returned. With it, outside came inside once more.