The Art of Hanging Laundry

By ZOLA TROUTMAN NOBLE

Hanging laundry on the line on a sunny summer morning is one of my favorite chores. Who would think? I have a dryer. Why not throw the clothes in the dryer and turn it on? It’s much easier. I admit that’s tempting, but I have all winter to do that. And in winter, I savor the warmth the dryer emits. But in summer, I snag any excuse to go outdoors. In fall, winter and spring, I’m busy with my teaching job, and it seems I’m always in a hurry to complete my household chores so I can get to my paper grading, or to some of the things I love to do—knitting or reading a good book or writing or visiting with friends. But in summer, I can look at my house and my chores and see them in a fresh way. I can actually enjoy them.

Though some women may think I’m crazy, I’ve found a kindred spirit in the writings of Kathleen Norris. In The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” Norris writes, “I still hang clothes on the line—for the exercise, for the pleasing ozone aroma of clothes dried in sunlight, and sometimes, in winter, as a means of combating cabin fever.” Though I don’t have the latter problem, I can add another reason for hanging laundry—it connects me to my mother line. My grandmothers and my mother hung clothes on the line, and I cannot help but think of them when I’m doing it. I thank God for them. It’s a kind of spiritual retreat for me, though short lived. It nonetheless revives my spirit, as it does for Norris, who sees household chores as making “order out of chaos” or “sorting through … the odd pieces of a life in order to make a whole.” Hanging laundry is also a way of being in the moment. Norris says household chores “have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day to day.” But I don’t want to become overly ethereal about this. Hanging laundry on the line is earthy. It is a physical action that takes me out of doors to enjoy the sunshine and the air, and it calls me to the art of living in the moment.

Down the stairs to my musty basement I go to fetch the oversized laundry basket I bought many years ago at Dixie Pottery in Abingdon, Virginia. It’s a reed basket, the color of yellow oak, not the plastic K-Mart variety. One handle has broken off.

I pull wet clothes out of the washer and pile them into the basket; I hoist the basket to my right hip, and I stretch my right arm across the top to grasp the handle. I balance the basket with my left hand underneath to compensate for the broken handle. The basket full of wet clothes is heavy, and each summer I tell myself to buy a laundry cart on wheels. But as long as I can still carry my basket, I suppose it’s good to challenge my muscles.

When we moved to our current home in 2002, there was no clothesline on the property, and no place close to the house to stretch a long line, as was my custom, so my husband went out and bought me a fold-up clothesline on a metal pole. Open like an umbrella, it looks like a giant four-sided spider web, I suppose, from a bird’s view: short lines near the pole lengthen as the line spirals toward the outer edges. To the west of our driveway, the former owners of our property had cemented a place for a flagpole, a small, circular cement mound poured around a metal pipe in the middle for the pole. The clothesline pole fit perfectly into that hole. It’s a little too close under shade trees, which can be a problem now and then if birds build a nest over the lines, but that’s happened only one summer in the 10 years we’ve lived here.

When I reach the line, I set the basket down and breathe in the fresh morning air. That’s the best part—the fresh air. The air is clear and clean. It’s a good day to be out of doors, a good day to dry clothes outside. I straighten my back and put my hands on my waist, my fingers almost touching at my back and massage my low back a moment, a gesture that brings to mind my grandmother. I see her standing in her apron gazing across her garden, straightening her back and massaging to ease the ache from stooping to cut her asparagus. My grandmother who hung clothes on the line, too. My practical grandmother who never wasted a thing if she could help it. I feel her smiling at me when I’m hanging laundry or canning or gardening.

Not every summer morning is a good drying day. The sun needs to be shining, the sky blue and clear. A partly cloudy morning will do, but clear sky is best—along with a slight breeze and low humidity. If the breeze is too stiff, the sheets billow like sails and flip across the top of the lines. If the humidity is too high, drying time is longer. If rain is in the forecast, I keep a close watch on the sky, so the clothes don’t get a second rinse.

I pause to find a rhythm for hanging the clothes. This is part of living in the moment, of relaxing and enjoying the process of hanging clothes, of creating art on the clothesline. And I admit that sometimes I must remind myself to savor the moment. To pause. To plan. To see. My first load consists of the white and light colors, some with a splash of pink or yellow or lime green or robin’s egg blue. To the inside of the lines, I clip the pillow cases and small items—my  blouses, T-shirts, socks and underwear. When my daughter became a teenager, she warned me one day not to hang her underpants and bras on the line. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be embarrassed, but she let me know in no uncertain terms. Now I think of her when I hang my own delicates on the line, and I arrange them so that they are on the inside of the spiral, close to the pole. Then I can hang the sheets on the outside to shield them from prying eyes. I smile at my arrangement. Who is going to see them anyway? My neighbors are not close. We live on five acres with lots of tall trees.

The next load is dark colors, which means mostly my husband’s clothes. Why is it that men’s clothes are darker and more somber looking than women’s? I sort out all of my husband’s plaid boxer shorts and pin them one by one on the line. Then his button down shirts, his T-shirts, then his pants and socks—everything seems to be gray, black, brown or navy, with bits of red, yellow or green splashed among the plaids and stripes. Granted, my jeans are among them, too. Now the line is full of alternating dark and light sections, somewhat like a pinwheel.

Next I start checking to see if any of the white and light clothes are ready to take down. Removing the clothes from the line should not be done haphazardly. This I learned many years ago when I was at a friend’s home. A storm was approaching and she was busy with her children, so she asked me to take the clothes off the line for her. I hurriedly unclipped the pins and dumped the clothes into the basket. When I brought everything into the house, she scolded me for not folding her clothes. “They’ll need ironing now,” she said. Funny how little remarks leave permanent impressions. Now when I take down the clothes and carefully fold each piece, I think of her.

Part of the joy of hanging clothes on the line is remembering the people who are important in my life—my daughter, my friends, my mother and my grandmothers, especially. I feel their presence. I remember when my mother got her first dryer and didn’t have to hang clothes on the line anymore. I wondered why she still did it. Years later, I discovered what she knew about drying laundry outdoors. With all our gadgets designed to make life easier, we lose the art of living in the present. We miss the “quotidian mysteries,” as Kathleen Norris explains: “It is a paradox of human life that in worship as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find possibilities for the greatest transformation.” For a few moments, I am transformed by my activity, and I carry with me throughout the day the peace it gives me.

That evening as I spread the clean sheets on my bed, the fresh “ozone aroma” fills the air. The perfumed smell of dryer sheet can’t compete. That’s the final blessing of line-dried laundry.

Zola Troutman Noble is associate professor emerita of Anderson University, Anderson, Ind., where she taught writing for 24 years. Now she is pursuing her own passion for writing, along with knitting, genealogy, hiking and grandchildren.


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