Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Symbolism On The Line

Last week I did something that for many years I would have sworn I would never do again, something I thought I had given up over twenty years ago, something I should report to my mother because she probably won't believe it. I hung my laundry out to dry.

Hanging the clothes out and getting them back in was one (or is that two?) of my chores once I had grown tall enough to reach the line. And I hated it. So I complained about it. I resisted it. And I procrastinated. My mother would call from many of her evening shifts at work and ask me if I had brought the clothes in yet, then remind me in that exasperated mother voice to just do it. Once I lied to her, with the rationale that I was going to do it, so it wasn't really a lie. I was busted that time when I never quite got around to it. I don't think I ever lied about it again, but I went right on hating the job and resolving that there would be a clothes dryer in my adult future.

Other than a child's hatred of being made to do work, I had a few other problems with line dried laundry. I disliked
racing the rain, the stiffness of line-dried towels and jeans (not that I wore them, but that's another story), being spooked out if I put off the chore until after dark, and hanging clothes all about the house when it was so cold that they might freeze. But what I really hated about it was that someone might come by and see me while doing it, which would have been mortifying to me.

Getting caught airing my dirty laundry, so to speak, was very likely. In those days, my middle school was three blocks away, my high school another half mile or so past that. And also in those days, more kids walked to and from school--right past my house. People I knew and would have to see again might gawk at me pinning up underwear, for goodness sake. A tender, bookish, self-worthless pre-adolescent or teenager just doesn't need such humiliation.

But my shame was about more than the awkward possibility of my peers seeing my drying panties.
No one else I knew had to hang clothes out, so in my mind, all the civilized, prosperous people, meaning everyone but us, had convenient and private dryers. They had long ago escaped the ancient necessity of hanging clothes outside for all the world to see. They could just pop them in the handy-dandy machine at their leisure, from which they would emerge soft, fluffy, and freshly scented, just like in the commercials on TV. We apparently couldn't afford such tasteful luxury.

And that was the worst sting of it. The clothes dryer was just one more of the many status symbols that we could not afford to buy, so hanging that laundry out was, in my mind, an announcement of our poverty and therefore of my less-than status among my peers, who I was sure had clothes dryers and all the other things I wanted and couldn't have, like my own room, or just my own bed. Our publicly flapping unmentionables were the emblem of a lack which went beyond uncool to shameful. Like the wearing of those clothes, the chore made public what I thought of as the shameful truth: we were poor, which must mean trashy. I mean, if we couldn't afford what other people had, then we were obviously not as good as they were, right?

Because of all my personal stigma, not affording a dryer was not an option once the choice was mine. When I married for the first time and set up housekeeping, as my granny called it, the necessary purchases with our limited funds were a bed, a table and chairs, and a washer and dryer set. Inside drying at one's own house (we won't even discuss the dubious joys of laundromats) was a privilege that was finally mine. It was just what respectable people did, and I was finally respectable.

By now, I have surely made plain the weight of meaning that I dumped on what, objectively speaking, is just some clothes drying outside rather than inside. But, I realized as I was making my new choice last week, we humans do that all the time. We have the power to take almost any object or action and attach most any symbolism we want to it. And the symbolism can and does change at will.

Although my personal inferiority complex magnified the shame, I believe that I was helped out by a real laundry stigma of the past three decades or so. It really was uncool to hang clothes out to dry. It really was more respectable to have a nice washer-dryer set, as matched as salt-and-pepper shakers. Well-fluffed, machine-dried laundry did indeed become the norm. Whether I needed to feel so shamed by it or not, we were behind the times, out of step, a little antiquated.

But everything old becomes new again. The current symbolism for line-drying laundry is now more likely to be about being "green," which is cool, than being poor, which is, alas, still uncool. The public debate about responsible energy use has made outdoor clothes drying more acceptable than it's been in at least thirty years. So I have circled back to a formerly hated chore of my own volition, simply because circumstances and therefore symbolism have changed.

So how was it? The towels and knits were stiffer than out of the dryer, just as I remembered, but they also softened right up when worn or used. I can't say that I detect any of that sun-fresh scent so ironically touted by fabric softeners (something else we never had back in the day), but I did enjoy being out in the sun and breezes. And there's just something about flapping laundry--now--that makes me feel like a contented home body who needs an apron. And those are cool again now, too.

I don't know that I will race the rain or freeze my fingers in cold weather to religiously hang my laundry, but I will definitely use every easily available opportunity here and now where there's already a clothesline. Then we'll install one at our new house. Why not use the free sun and feel homey and virtuous at the same time?

Now I need to call my mother. She's going to love this.

1 comment:

Kentucky Farm Girl said...

OMG, I think we must be kindred spirits. I'm 43, like to cook, own yoga pants, don't write poetry but have a degree in English, live in Kentucky, and just started hanging out my laundry, too. I was musing over a clothesline blog post, but you've beat me to it. Kudos!