We don’t have chores in our house. We do what we’re told when we’re told to do it. If we don’t do what we’re told, we get the paddle. No amount of whining and complaining can make a difference, although we all try it.
We are lucky though because most of the time Momma does everything and this is how I think she feels like she is taking good care of us, although we would be glad to help if it made her less anxious. She’s always worried, worried, worried – about everything.
“Gaaddamn it, get the degreaser. Hurry up, put the Gaaddamn degreaser in.”
I don’t know what degreaser is and I’m not sure why I should put the damn stuff in. I do know it comes in a yellow bottle. It’s tall with ridges on the outside. I can’t always open it quick enough and I hope Momma didn’t tighten it with her grip of steel, because if she did I’ll never get it open before she yells it again. “Put the Gaaddamn degreaser in!”
Laundry is a science to Momma and she’s always rushing around as fast, as fast as she can. With ten kids the laundry takes up the whole day and she doesn’t mind reminding us every time she does it. She starts while the sun is still light and bright without heat and takes the sheets right out from under me while I sleep. She does the same thing to all ten of us. Sometimes it wakes me up, but sometimes not. The older kids complain about it and fight with Momma over being woken up, but I don’t care much about getting up early, because I get to help Momma if I get up early. She doesn’t like help and I have to do things just so, because laundry is important. She says, “We might not have money, but you kids aren’t walking around dirty.” There something about being poor that makes most people dirty, but not us.
“Amy Beth, where’s the damn degreaser, quit fooling around and get over here.”
I step up on a rickety old stool and grab the cool metal cup from the shelf that is hung half-crooked, the cup slides if you don’t put in the right place, it perfectly covers a ring on the shelf from the rust on the bottom of the cup. I’m careful while pouring. For something named degreaser, it’s very greasy.
“Just half full not all the way full, or you’ll have to start over, don’t waste it.”
We have an old-time washing machine, a wringer washer. It’s white with a red ring painted around the middle, smooth on the outside and cool to the touch. There are two rubber rollers on top and if you don’t watch out, your hands will get the hell pinched out of them when the rollers are rolling and squeezing the water out of the clothes. That’s what Momma says. There is a rusty stain on the underside. I’ve tried to wash it off, but it doesn’t work, it’s stuck on there, forever and ever. The washer stays in the back room over the basement door in the floor. I’m glad that it hides the basement door, I think bad things are down there and all the other kids tell me so too. I will not go down there unless I am forced, that has only happened once and that time I saw a man’s butt crack, Peggy said – “See! I told you – plumber’s smile!” Staring at the backside of some guy working on our water pump. I don’t understand what that means, but I laugh and laugh so I can get the heck out of there.
Momma and I boil water on the stove for the load of whites. Sometimes we have hot water on the tap and sometimes we don’t, because we can’t always pay our bills and even if we have hot water, she yells, “That water isn’t hot enough, boil it some more, I like my whites white! And don’t touch that pot, it will burn the hell out of you.” It takes three giant pots of water to wash the whites. We make one pot of hot for the colored clothes, mixed with cold water. For dark colors or when we are lazy and don’t care if we stink and our whites are dingy, we can wash in cold, which is never.
The cold water comes from the hose, which tastes like the metal ring at the end of the hose. The hose runs from around the side of the house and we prop open the screen door to keep it from pinching the water off. This lets the flies in, but there isn’t any other way to get the hose into the back room. Then we spend the afternoon killing flies with the pink and white flyswatter that has a long wire handle and is covered in guts. Sometimes in a pinch Momma will swat us with the flyswatter, if the paddle isn’t close enough.
I fill the washer with hose water, turn off the water and unhook the hose from the faucet and leave it lying on the ground, but far away from the house so when the water we drain from the washer comes out, it doesn’t run back on the house and rot the foundation. I learn a lot from Momma, she explains things as she goes along and I might not understand it all, but I am good at remembering. I have to know everything or else someone yells about something, so it’s easier to remember everything and do what I need to do right, the first time.
Momma let’s everything soak for at least 30 minutes because we are all so Gaadamn dirty.
Once the clothes have soaked, Momma plugs the electric cord into the light bulb on the ceiling and then she lets me flip the switch that turns it on. The washer makes a loud grinding noise and the whole backroom shakes. We let it agitate, that’s Momma’s word for swirling the clothes around, for 10 or 15 minutes; standing there not hearing another sound in the world except the grind of the washer. After agitating, I take the end of the hose and screw it to a spout that comes out of the bottom of the washer, the spout is old and needs to be cleaned with “C Cleaner” which Momma says gets the calcium off. We open the spout on the bottom and drain the dirty water outside through the hose.
I run outside to watch the water come out and make sure there are no hair or other clogs that back it up. I hope with everything that there is no clod of hair that gets stuck. I almost throw up thinking about it having to touch it. The water flows dark and murky, making a trail down the dirt driveway.
Once the water has drained, we taking the sopping wet clothes and run them one by one through the wringer to squeeze out all the water. I am not allowed to put them through the wringer. I am not old enough yet. My job is to catch the clothes as they come out. Momma doesn’t like them slapping onto the dirty floor when they come out all squished flat.
Then we rinse the flattened clothes by adding cold water from the hose into the washer and firing it up again. One more time through the wringer and they are ready to hang on the line in the yard. There are two lines, one short and one long, both run from the house to the barn, which doesn’t work like a barn anymore, it’s now just an old building full of junk and wasps. It does have an outhouse on the side of it, but you can’t go to the bathroom in there anymore, it’s been sealed up tight.
Momma doesn’t talk much during laundry, she explains what she’s doing so I know how to do it on my own one day and she yells out things to do “Degreaser!” “Turn the hose on!” “Now turn it off Gaaddamn it!”
Before we start hanging the clothes, we start another load to soak.
I’m not allowed to hang the clothes, because Momma says “You don’t hang things right, they’ll come out all wrinkled if you hang them, and I’m not spending the whole day ironing. You’ve got to hang them so the breeze can get through them.” I don’t even hang socks right, which are supposed to be easy. My job is to hand things to Momma real fast so they don’t get too wrinkled sitting in the basket and then I take a metal pole and raise up the laundry on the wire. It’s heavy to lift, but I can do it even when Mom yells at me not to. I just laugh when she yells when we are in the yard, because she is too far away to smack me. While she’s hanging the laundry I look for wasps and bugs that bite because I’m afraid of them. If I see a wasp or a bee, I run in the house until it goes away.
“Get your ass back out here” Mom says, but I just pretend I can’t hear her. I’d rather hear Momma yell than get stung by a wasp.
I had no idea that there is any other way to do laundry, in the winter we do go to the Laundromat sometimes, so I know that there are indoor washers and dryers, but I have no clue that someone could actually buy one and have it in their house. I also have no idea that all my other friends are having their clothes washed inside their own house. I assumed that everyone washes clothes like it’s 1950.
I’m sure it seems that Momma was mean to me, but I never saw it as mean, she had no patience for misunderstanding and if you did something wrong or ruined the load of wash, it could cost her hours of time. I learned to cook the same way, trial by fire, get it right or get the hell out of the kitchen! If you put too much salt or milk in something you were helping Momma make, it could mean none of us ate that day. I understand why she felt like doing it herself was faster. She was doing the best she could and for that I’m thankful.