By Colette McCormack
The clothesline stretched from our back door right down to the hook on the shed at the end of the yard. It was a very long line and would be completely filled on a Monday, which was washing day in our house.
Sheets billowed in the breeze, ends secured to ends with sturdy pegs to prevent them taking off down the yard if the wind was extra strong. Pillow cases hung alongside regimental in their pegged positions. Socks of all sizes had their special section on the line and matched with their counter parts. Neatness and order on the clothesline was my mother’s pride.
Everything on that line was hand washed by my mother. The wooden washboard was of stout strength, it had to be as its use was constant and her hands had to be of special power also to do this hard work.
Clothing and various household bits and pieces were collected in a basket in the scullery over the week for washing on the Monday. We children had the job of collecting the rain water from the barrel under the chute at the end of the house and filling various pots and pans to be heated on the range in readiness for the ‘wash’.
The big galvanised bath was placed on two chairs, lined up facing each other, and strong enough to hold the filled bath. The ‘blue bag’ was prepared, the Lifebuoy soap at the ready and buckets of cold water were strategically placed to take the washed items for rinsing. These buckets would be emptied and refilled until the water ran clear.
And so the operation began. Rubber household gloves did not exist in those days. How my poor mother’s hands were not rubbed raw by the constant friction of cloth scrubbing against ribbed wood is a mystery to me.
As the work proceeded, steam built up in the kitchen and the order ‘would somebody open the window’ was given from behind the mountain of suds. Our opinions would be sought as to whether an item was stain free, or if the ‘whites’ were as ‘white’ as they could possibly be.
These had been boiled, along with the nappies of the current baby, in a huge pot over the range and they would then be finished off in the wash bath. ‘Whiter than white whites’ was a sign of an assiduous washer, and my mother was not going to let the side down if she could help it.
Her face got progressively redder from exertion and perspiration made rivulets down her face. She got a bit cross as things progressed and one of us recognising the sign would put the kettle on. ‘Haven’t time for tea now’ was her usual response to the invite to have a ‘cuppa’, but when told that her tea was poured out she would reluctantly shake the suds from her hands, wipe them on her apron and sit on a stool to sip her tea.
A few companionable minutes would ensue as peace reigned even for a short while.
The next part of this wash day procedure was the ‘pegging’ out of the clothes. Between our mother and father – if he was available – and us children we would wring as much water as was possible out of the washed items before loading them into the basket and taking it outside.
There were two – what we called ‘line poles’ – that were used to prop up the clothesline to keep it from sagging under the wet weight of its burden.
My mother was remarkable woman in many respects. She styled herself as a ‘city girl’, having grown up there. She may have been, but she was a hard-working mother of eight children and fitted herself very well into country life. She baked her own bread, reared ‘day old’ chicks until they could take their place in the back yard, her call of ‘chuck, chuck’ would bring hens flying from here, there and everywhere for their share of pollard.
She learned to milk the cow, feed the new calf, help save the turf and then, when the carts brought it home, would throw the sods into the shed with the rest of us.
She knitted and crocheted, darned our socks, put plaits in our hair on Saturday night for ‘waves’ going to Mass on Sunday.
My most precious possession is the Christening shawl she crocheted for the Baptism of her first grandchild. It has been put to good use over the years since then.
Learning the art of doing crochet was beyond me, but I can make a lovely loaf of brown bread and I often stand back to admire my whiter than white clothes, nicely pegged out. And, as I look down, I recognise my mother’s hands in mine.
I feel very blessed and pleased about that.