We didn’t have a washing machine.
My mother did the laundry in the bathtub, using a washboard, and she hung the clothes on a line. We lived in an attic apartment, the top floor of a Queen Anne in what once had been the most fashionable quarter of Paterson, New Jersey, and which was still one of the nicer parts of town. The houses were mostly single-family, middle class, though the dentist on the corner had live-in help and a grand piano, and a man on the next block had a butler. The old couple who rented us our place owned a lot of houses, and my father’s father, a plumber, had worked in them. When he told the landlord that his son was getting married and needed an apartment, the landlord said that he had one on the top floor of his own house. It was a perfect starter place. My parents lived there for thirty years.
There were a lot of reasons we never moved. The attic was ridiculously cheap – fifty dollars a month, including, as my father liked to point out, “gas, electric, and heat.” It had a big yard, a driveway, and a room in the basement where my father could putter. He had moved around a lot as a kid, during the Depression, going from one cold-water flat to another, and that attic must have seemed as stable and permanent a home as any split-level in the suburbs. Anyway, he didn’t have the homeowning gene.
If my mother did, she never let on. I don’t remember her ever starting a “how come all my friends have houses” quarrel, and she never complained about sitting on a bench scrubbing clothes in the bathtub, or lugging them downstairs to the line. She might have, eventually, but that primitive laundry ritual didn’t last. There was a brief period when we went to a laundromat, when one opened a few blocks away, but the big change came when my grandmother got a washing machine.
My grandmother and grandfather, my mother’s parents, lived in the house where she had grown up, on the other side of town, and owned a diner on a highway two towns east. They kept the place open twenty-four hours, turning it over to the night man (a crook, it turned out, who pocketed half the wee hours’ proceeds) at eight each evening. Their ride home took them through our neighborhood, so when my grandmother got the washer, she offered to pick up our laundry and return it, folded and ironed, a few days later. It was no big deal for her; merely something else to ward off the problem of having a spare minute in her day. Work was her medium. She spent her days running a ribbon loom in a silk mill, and took the bus to the diner in time for the dinner rush.
My grandmother had a clothesline in her backyard, one end attached to a pulley on the back porch, and the other strung likewise from a tilting pole at the far end of the yard. The pole was maybe twenty feet tall, and made of some indestructible wood – probably cedar, as it never rotted and the bugs never got it – that had iron spikes driven into it to use as a ladder in case anyone ever had to scale it to unfoul the pulley. No one ever did, which was good because it looked like a child’s weight (mine, likely) would have brought it to the ground. It’s a wonder the wet clothes never did.
The laundry came back on Saturday night. My grandfather would pull up in his ’53 Chevy and blow the horn. My memory of the event is always of summer, always of hot nights when we’d hear the horn over the big fan in a dormer window, the way you’d hear the bell on the Good Humor truck. My mother and sister and I would go down the back stairs and past the yard to where my grandfather had nosed the Chevy to the curb. I’d take the basket out of the back seat, where it sat next to whatever provisions my grandmother was transferring from the diner to her kitchen, an arrangement that probably wouldn’t pass muster with the IRS. (Once, she had a lidless stockpot full of chicken soup on the floor, and a case of Pepsi on the seat; when she was heating the soup for a Sunday family dinner, she found an empty Pepsi bottle in the pot, then dredged out the cap. The soup was served, nobody noticed the caramel tinge, and my mother was sworn to secrecy but promptly circulated the story. It was too good to hold in.)
Standing with my mother on the curb, my grandparents in the car, both doors hanging open, the big quiet houses all around and the first fireflies in the gathering dusk – that’s my most vivid memory of a hot summer night in Paterson. We’d talk, and then the Chevy would wallow off, my grandfather handling the wheel like the wheel of the bus he drove before buying the diner. I carried the laundry upstairs. Soon my father would be home.
My father, who worked in the propellor division of an aircraft company, spent Saturdays from June through September in the part of north Jersey he always called “the country.” He knew every dairy farmer, and they were happy to see him show up to help keep their nuisance populations of woodchucks in check. Chucks are a tricky target – a ten- or twelve-pound critter poking out of a hole in a new-mown field hundreds of yards away. The weapon of choice is a heavy-barreled small-bore rifle with a powerful scope — that, plus good eyes and a steady hand. I have his notes of woodchuck kills at four hundred yards and more. He never talked about it, but I suspect it was a skill he was called to use on both sides of the Rhine.
That was his summer Saturday. And it set us up for our summer Saturday evenings, since dairies weren’t the only farms “up the country.” On those hot nights, when he’d show up around nine, just after the laundry, he’d bring home corn, big Jersey tomatoes, and maybe a small basket of peaches. My mother would make a late dinner, usually burgers to go with the tomatoes and corn. He’d have a beer, talk about what farms he’d been to, then tuck in to watch the end of the Yankee game. My mother and I would stay up and listen to Jean Shepherd’s live radio show from Greenwich Village.
After my grandparents died, my mother and father moved into their house. By that time, my grandmother had bought a dryer, so the clothesline came down and, later, the tottering old wooden pole. My father cut it up with a chainsaw. There was still a piece, with one of the spikes sticking out, lying in a corner of the garage when it came time for me to sell the house when my parents, too, had gone. I brought it back to Vermont, an odd family heirloom, and tucked it away in my own garage.
When we sold our house, I left the clothes pole fragment behind. I’ve thought about the new owner finding it, grabbing it by the spike, and tossing it into the fireplace one cold night. The hard old wood goes to ashes, the spike glows red as memory, and cools to gray as the cinders die.