After several days of rain, grey clouds and chill, it’s a bright, sunny day with just a few full white clouds. The trees in the wood next to the house are now fully in leaf; they tower against the sky, fresh green dramatic against the deep blue. From this first floor flat, even as I crane my head back, they rise so high I can’t see their tops. From within their hidden depths, birds celebrate the beautiful spring day.
During a phone call just now, my sister-in-law in Ireland and I compared notes on the weather. ‘It’s the first good day all week. Up and down the street,’ I said, everyone’s got wash on the line.’
‘I know,’ said she. ‘On mornings like that, I look around and say, “Now what can I wash?”’
‘Exactly! I do the same. Today I have the sheets and the bath towels hanging.’
And I do. The line is full of flapping yellow towels and white sheets, pale sails of a ship in a vast emerald sea. Standing at the window and looking down on them in the lawn below, I am filled with a calm joy. The sheets fill and billow, the four-sided wäschespinner whirls, and diamond-shaped shadows dapple the grass.
The clothesline is new, put it up a few weeks ago. Himself dug the hole, mixing and pouring the concrete, then carefully carving our initials and the date into pale-grey mass. I stood by, impatient to use the new line.
The fact is, this is my first clothesline. I can barely remember the clothes hanging outside the kitchen window of my childhood home. I must have been nine or ten when my mother got the automatic tumble-dryer, and after that, I don’t remember her using the clothesline. From then until we moved to Ireland three years ago, the main part of my laundry went into the dryer. Delicates and things that might shrink, of course, were dried on hangers, but that didn’t require a clothesline.
It’s indicative of the casual use – waste – of fuels that is a part of life in America. A neighbour told me when we first moved to Thousand Oaks, California, that there was a city law against clotheslines. I don’t know if she had her facts straight, and I never investigated. What would they do, anyway, give you a ticket if your laundry offended your neighbour? However, in 17 years living there, I never saw a clothesline full of wash. Whether there was a law or not, hanging laundry on a line just wasn’t done.
It’s ironic, really. In Southern California, we suffered through hot dry summers stretching through October, basked in the sun on Christmas Day, had barbecues on New Year’s Day, and restricted our watering because of years-long droughts. In Ireland, where rain may arrive at any moment, any time of the year, many only reluctently use their tumble dryers. If laundry hung on the line is caught in a rain shower, it is shrugged off as a ‘second rinse.’
In Ireland, though, we never got around to putting up a clothesline. I couldn’t decide where to put it – oh monumental decision! – and my mother-in-law, living next door, graciously allowed me to use hers. It was only about 50 metres from our back door, and we were back and forth between the two houses frequently anyway.
So when we moved to this flat a year ago, it was the first time in my life I had access to neither clothesline nor dryer. For the past year, I’ve been hanging my wash on a tublular stainless steel clothes horse, setting it up in the garden on good days or in the utility room where the boiler roars on bad ones. About a metre high and extending about a metre and a half wide, it did the job adequately. But never, until now, could I wash several loads on a single day. Never, until now, could I wash and hang the large bath towels and the sheets all on the same morning.
This evening when I take down the laundry, the socks and towels will be a little stiff, without the fluffiness that comes from a tumble dryer. The sheets and tea towels, too, will show some creasing, turned in at the corners and imprinted with the impression of the clothes pegs. They will be also stiff and slightly awkward to fold. But they will smell as sweet and fresh as the green of the leaves against the blue sky, and bring with them the sun of this May day. Mundane as this is, it is for me a source of quiet joy.