Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the Line

It’s a common exercise, to sit and dream and fantasize and consider the question: What would I do with a multimillion dollar fortune?

My list probably includes similar things as yours: trust fund for the kids, extensive travel, vacation homes on worldwide beaches, a fleet of fancy cars.

But I always include this wish-list item. If I were ever wealthy enough to purchase an estate home with a staff, I would direct my housekeeper to do two things without question: Change sheets daily. And hang them outside to dry.

This stems from my frugal mother’s tradition. Starting about mid-March, when the wintry weather would break, she would drag our sopping clothes out of the washer, haul them out the back door and hang them on a clothesline. This chore would continue through the spring and summer, well into the fall, when a prewinter chill would prevent it. She’d stop about the time when, owing to frosty temps, our jeans would be returned with legs as stiff as the Tinman’s from The Wizard of Oz.

And yes, I characterized this as an exercise in frugality. Mom saw no reason not to trim the electric bill seven months out of every year by foregoing the use of the dryer. Just another of her lessons in the truism: A penny saved is a penny earned.

But I would resurrect this washday habit not because of the finances; after all, I’m a multimillionaire.

I would bring it back for the unforgettable feeling and scent of sheets dried in sunlight.

There was something absolutely entrancing about the feel of soft cotton that had been hung out on a breezy summer afternoon… it was an unparalleled luxury, the paragon of tactile ecstasy.

I never remember sleeping as well as the first night fresh sheets were put on the bed.

Beyond the silky smoothness was the scent. No dryer sheet on earth can begin to recreate the perfume of summery breezes blown through the weave of fibers. How I long to again bury my nose in a pillowcase and whiff the combined bouquet of honeysuckle, fresh-mown grass, simmering charcoal briquettes from the neighbor’s patio, and rainwater.

It is heavenly.

There was a methodology in hanging laundry, an art that seems to be losing devotees at an increasing rate, at least in my neck of the woods. Bed linens and towels were hung at maximum width, often over two lengths of line to ensure they didn’t drag on the ground. Shirts were hung from their shoulders, that they would dry in a basic “body shape” that negated the need for ironing (but used to leave funny “wings” at each shoulder where the clothespins nipped the fabric). Socks and underwear lined up in rows, as if for military inspection.

The only drawback was the system’s utter dependency on the weather. Summer afternoons, violent thunderstorms would blow up from the south, causing Mom to dash outside and quickly tear the clothing from its gallows. Nested within our family history is the tale of Mom flying out back to rescue her loads, slipping in the mud, and fracturing her ankle. My brother braved the tumultuous storm to rescue her, but rather than helping her inside or calling a neighbor as instructed, told her to lie still, that he’d be right back. He trotted back in the house and emerged again moments later with a plastic Li’l Doctor Medical Bag under his arm, ready to “fix her up.”

So, yes, it was an activity that also ran the risk of injury. A distant risk, but one worth noting. 

But in my mind, it is well worth the chance, and I mourn that it eventually fell out of favor in my parents’ house, when age and mobility trumped cost containment.

And it never caught on in my own home at all.

Why did it die off with us? Why not string up a clothesline of our own?

Good question. The answer is tied up in a number of excuses, including neighborly disfavor of clotheslines in general. But the truest answer is probably an overall pinch for time. Same thing that killed the cooking of homemade tapioca, the use of Dad’s shoe-polishing kit, and hand-washing the car.

But hope springs eternal. I’m not a big lotto player, but when I do purchase the odd ticket, I picture the fruits of my good fortune if I happen to win: I see me turning my convertible BMW into a sweeping driveway, strolling up the stone-lined path to my massive front door, entering my foyer and accepting the greetings of staff, and making my way to my expansive view of my acreage out back.

Including the sight of sheets and pillowcases flapping in the breeze.

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