Thursday, July 22, 2010

Laundry Day and a bit of Portuguese Style

With a little person in the house this week, the washing machine has been very welcome, even though said little person's mother brought along a stack of disposable diapers. Darling little peach-and-pink gingham cropped pants dotted with tomato sauce, just-as-cute army-green cargos trimmed with polka dots rimed white with dried saltwater, a whale-appliqued pink t-shirt with enough blueberry splotches to make a small pie, all these make me happy to have a machine that can do a small cycle, on "Delicate" in ten or fifteen minutes. With the sunshine we've been having, clothes are dry on my little rack outside in a few hours, and we can start again, perhaps this time putting the blueberries on a yellow shirt, trying for tomato on the green. . . .

I was content for quite a few years to be a stay-at-home mom (working , though -- all moms are working moms, right?) so was able to indulge in cloth diapers and for our first year with our oldest, we had no dryer, so I hung many loads of laundry out on the line, often hauling them in before they were dry because it had started raining. I have to admit that, young as I was, rather idealistic environmentally, and still besotted with the novelty of independent domestic life, I could be caught sighing happily over the sight of those diapers flapping in the breeze.

And sometimes I'd think of my maternal grandmother. She had ten children, and although mothers toilet-trained early in those days, she would still occasionally have two in diapers at the same time, and they lived in Manitoba where many months of the year were only good for freezing clothes board-solid on the line. While my grandfather always worked hard to keep the family adequately, even comfortably, housed, their residences were never expansive, and these spaces were often decorated with laundry festooned from drying lines inside the house.

No wonder, then, that when a travelling salesman stopped by one day in the difficult 30s, my grandmother's heart would have beat faster at his description of the oh-so-useful washing machines he was selling. Just think of the hours she could save if the machine would agitate the clothes for her, instead of having to stir them and scrub them with her own tired hands, sometimes rubbing the knuckles raw. Imagine being able to feed them through the wringer to rid them of all the excess moisture, instead of wearing out her own wrists and finger joints wringing them out one by one. . . .

But no, Grandma would almost have snapped at the salesman, pushing down her silly excitement, how could she possibly afford such an item. Did she look as if there was money to spare on such foolishness? She was probably already shutting the door impatiently, getting back to her bread dough or scolding a curious child back to its chore of setting the table, when the clever salesman made a suggestion. What if she could buy the washing machine on credit? That was an easy suggestion for Grandma to resist, but his next one gave her pause: What if she washed clothes for some of the neighbours, earning enough money to pay for the washer herself?

And that, dear readers, is how my Grandma got her first washing machine, and left the washtub behind her for ever.

Perhaps what surprised me most about this story when she told me it many years ago is that when I told her how proud I was of her hard work and initiative, a domestic entrepreneur at a time and place when opportunities were few and when life was a constant struggle, she found my pride hard to credit. All Grandma felt, when she remembered this period, was shame. Doing domestic work for others was an abasement, a betrayal of the class movement she was committed to, the upward trajectory that her husband's hard work and their home ownership was meant to achieve. Caught between her upbringing in a French-Canadian farming family and the dreams encouraged by the 20th-century's carrot-dangling media (in effect decades before Mad Men, really), Grandma's shame stayed with her even into her comfortable old age in a house with her own washer and dryer and freezer and stove and fridge, all well-maintained, all paid for with cash, in advance . . . I could only hug her, a bit sadly, a bit wiser about the role class played in my own family history. I thought of Grandma's story a few weeks ago when we walked through several villages in Portugal's Beiras and noticed these communal washing facilities, decades if not centures old.

These "modcons" include a grooved or textured surface -- ribbed, not "for your pleasure," as certain ads promise, but for cleaning efficiency. Of the two we spotted, each scrubbing surface
was differently configured but with the same obvious purpose.

The water is apparently diverted from the ingenious irrigation/aqueduct system that is ubiquitous through this region. Once we were alert to it, we were constantly aware of culverts and gutters and pipes, often equipped at strategic points with very simple (often just a piece of wood) levers which allowed water be switched from this pathway to that. Here a simple switch would move water to fill up this cistern, and nearby a pail or a bottle could be filled with cool potable water.
While I was quite sure I'd figured out what these facilities were for, I was pleased to have my guess confirmed by this hard-working woman, apparently quite content to be washing her laundry and happy to pose for this photograph. This "laundromat" has more features than the other, with separate tubs and what looks like easier access to clean rinsing water.

And it's covered, which would be a welcome feature on the rainy days when you really need to get that piri-piri sauce out of your husband's best shirt so that he looks decent at the dinner with your visiting cousin tomorrow night . . .

In fact, while I'm hardly going to wax nostalgic about the prospect of washing clothes by hand, I can see the communal aspect of this making the task easier in comparison to my Grandmother struggling through load after load at home with only crying babies for company.
I suspect the sunny climate helps a bit as well, and I can imagine that, in the past at least, clothes might be laid out somewhere nearby for the sun to bleach out stains.
Another benefit of the communal aspect is that, with the water diverted from a nearby river and, presumably, the drained and dirty water eventually returning to the same river after being filtered through surrounding soil, the launderers might be more conscious about what their cleaning products do to their drinking water. We were certainly impressed by the cleanliness of all the streams and rivers we walked along which, even in their very slowly-moving backwaters, showed no obvious influence of the slime-encouraging phosphates -- this is only a superficial impression, of course, and I hesitate to generalize from such anecdotal evidence, but I suspect we'd all be reading laundry-product labels more carefully if we knew how quickly they could end up in our drinking water.
And, of course, people are much more practical about what they wear when they know that they have to wash their clothes by hand. We saw this "style" on 80 or 90% of the women in the villages during the daytime. Very practical. Probably quite comfortable. I could have picked one up at one of the travelling market days. I passed. . . .

What do you think? If you had to wash all your clothes by hand, could you be persuaded to adopt this practical garb? And perhaps you could explain to me the mystery of the tights worn in 30 degree weather, weather that is at least acknowledged by the hat and the short sleeves. . . Or perhaps, instead, you'd like to tell me a family laundry anecdote. . . or what items, if any, you like to dry on a line . . . . I'll check back later. Meanwhile, my daughter and I are off to get pedicures, do a little shopping, have a mom-and-daughter lunch. Grandad/Pater will be at the beach with Nola. Have a lovely day.