The Washerwoman is a little story about the friendship of two women at either ends of life and their conversation at the washing line one late Spring afternoon.
It’s a little story of a realisation of greater things, a gentle reminder to ourselves of what often lies hidden in plain sight.
I dedicate this story to my wife who loves washing clothes, and to my mother who taught me these simple but important skills.
Vanessa grumbled under her breath as she took the laundry from the “fucker of a washing machine” as she usually calls it when not at her best.
Resentfully she shoved the wet clothes into the laundry basket – socks still wrapped together, jeans with things still in the pockets, shirts still buttoned, darks mixed with whites.
“I shouldn’t have to do this shitty job all the time. It about time someone else did this instead of me. I’ve better things to be doing than cleaning up after my family”, she says loudly to herself.
“fuckers, I’m just a bloody slave. That’s what they think I am”.
The side gate to the backyard opened slowly with a loud creak. Vanessa looked up from the washing machine in the shed.
“Ah hello Betty”, she said, surprised to see the elderly washerwoman from next door.
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“Hello love, can I give you a hand?” said Betty.
“Oh I’m ok Betty, I’m nearly done” Vanessa replied.
Betty smiled. “Sure let me help you love, many hands make light work”.
“You know I’m almost 70 years washing and hanging out clothes, I’m a master”, she said with a smile.
“I can’t understand how you like doing this job. It’s the one I hate the most. I must spend 20 hours a week washing clothes. I never asked for it and yet I seem to have been given it. It’s not fair”, Vanessa said.
“You know love, nothing gave me greater pleasure than being in the back garden, in the sun, hanging out my family’s clothes. Even when it rained I smiled, because even the rain felt good. Now hand me some of those things and let’s get them out on the line”.
The Blackbird’s Song
For the next couple of minutes, the young mother and the washerwoman hung out things in silence. Vanessa handing things to Betty, Betty pegging them to the line, skillfully overlapping the items to make best of the limited space and the few pegs that were available.
For such a simple and mundane task she seemed so skilled and adept. She usually moved about slowly, but here she was quick handed and accurate. Vanessa noticed something about how Betty worked that seemed remarkable for some reason.
It was nearly summer and the blackbirds had taken up residence on the rooftops and trees, delivering their beautiful song to the world.
“Do you hear that, love?”, asked Betty.
Vanessa looked at her wondering what she meant.
“The blackbirds remind me when my boys were little. Oh I wish I had those days again, they were so gorgeous. Their little socks and underwear, they were so cute. Nothing gave me greater pride than making sure all their things were washed and dried properly. It was a real labour of love for me you know.”
“The others are big now, gone away from here, rearing their own families. I was 39 when little Charlie left. Broke my heart so it did. A mother never recovers from that.”
Vanessa’s heart sank. She thought of her own children and how much she loved them. My God she thought, I’d just want to die myself if anything ever happened them.
“I’m so sorry Betty, I didn’t know. How old was Charlie?”
“He was only 5 love. A beautiful boy, my first. We were coming from school and a driver was coming too fast, there was nothing I could do”.
“My God Betty I’m so sorry,” said Vanessa as she rubbed the washerwoman on the back.
Betty seemed vacant for a few seconds. It was like she’d been transported back in time to that early Autumn day 47 years ago when she lost her little boy. Her eyes began to well up.
It was quiet for a bit, then suddenly something seemed to jolt the washerwoman back to the conversation with her young friend.
The Beauty In The Task
“Now love, this is a beautiful task and I’m going to show you why”, Betty said as she reached down her sleeve for her handkerchief.
“By the time we’re done darling, you’ll have a completely new outlook on washing clothes. I’m going to show you everything my mother taught me. She was master of things you know”.
“Great Betty”, Vanessa said appreciatively. “I really need to make some progress with this lot”.
There was a huge pile of clothes to be washed in Vanessa’s shed, and the two women worked together for maybe an hour to get them done.
“First darling, is to understand that all work is precious and sacred. Life doesn’t happen to us, we happen it, we are it. We choose our path, and to resent the path is to resent life, which is to resent the very nature of our being.”
“We are made of love, you can see that in the eyes of your beautiful children. And so to do anything for them is to show your love. The same applies to your husband, your brothers, your sisters.”
“Resent nothing darling, for you not only do your loved ones a disservice, you also do a disservice to the very nature of what made you.”
She touched Vanessa on the cheek. “And now, to washing clothes”.
“Every task you can ever do, you do now darling. Life is happening now, never in the past, never in the future, always now. When we love our work now we love life, and so you must fall in love with washing clothes.”
“There is no bad in any task, other than that we make in our minds. When we love every moment we end up with a life loved.”
“Mind your mind darling”, she said as she pointed a wrinkly finger to her young friend’s temple.
“Love, it’s really important that you take the time to separate the darks from the whites. Otherwise, you’ll spend your time in the store buying new clothes every other week. Also watch the mixed colours, like stripy things and the like. They need to go in a wash on their own.”
“Shake everything out like this before you load them”, she said as she demonstrated with one of Vanessa’s summer tops.
“Now, let’s make three piles”.
The Sock Conundrum
“Now see these socks, always undo them before you put them in the washing machine love. Otherwise, they’ll be tightly packed and never be washed properly.”
“Want to know how to make sure you never lose a pair?”
“Are you kidding me?” Said Vanessa. “If you can give the world a solution to that problem you’ll be a millionaire”.
“Ah darling, money doesn’t interest me. Anyway, this is a simple solution. One if you employ, will solve all your problems, not just one of socks”
“Here it is, are you ready?
Vanessa nodded a yes.
There was a long pause, the two women staring at each other.
“Is that it?” Vanessa said disappointedly.
“Yes love, that’s it. I told you it was simple. Learn to pay attention to everything now. Keep your mind on the moment, don’t be taken off by it’s dreaming of a better future or lamenting a past experience”.
“Stay present, pay attention girl. Got it?”
“Sure, I think so.”
Bringing Love To Things
“Now, trousers. Always check the pockets love. You never know what you’ll find” Betty said with a cheeky grin as she pulled a twenty out of Vanessa’s husband’s pocket holding it up in the air.
“Woohoo! Look what I found”, she said. “Finders keepers”. The two women laughed.
“Next, when you load these jeans into the machine, turn them inside out. Put them in ass first, then one leg at a time. It makes a difference I’m telling you. Here, do it with these.”
Vanessa loaded four pairs of John’s trousers into the machine just as Betty showed her. It was a darks wash, and next they turned to the children’s clothes.
“Darling, these clothes are probably the most precious. When the children put them on they literally absorb the love and care you put into cleaning them. When you give negativity to this task of laundry making, the very clothes your children wear will be tainted.”
“Please love, for the grace of your young children, put your love into these things. It will protect and love your children when they are not with you. Do you hear me pet? This is very important”
“Yes Betty, I hear you. I feel you too, I know you’re right”.
Vanessa felt a pang of hurt. She knew intuitively what the old lady was saying was true. She saw something in her eyes. Things are going to change she thought.
Hanging Them Out
“You don’t use that contraption there do you?” Betty asked pointing at the clothes dryer.
“Yes, all the time Betty. Why, is there something wrong with it?”
“Darling the air outside is filled with life itself. As you breathe it in you breathe in God Almighty. Let your clothes dry naturally whenever you can, let them blow around in the wind. They’ll feel nicer on your skin if you do”.
“Here, let’s hang these out together.”
“Now love, when you hang these lovely clothes out to dry you need to know a few ground rules, ok?”
“First, always shake each item out before pegging it on the line. You’ll save hours of ironing later.”
“Always peg shirts upside down. If you do it the other way you’ll get peg marks on the shoulders, and they’re very hard to iron out. The men tuck their shirt tails into their pants love, so peg marks on the bottom don’t matter.”
“Space is limited on every washing line, and so are pegs. So overlap things and use one peg to hold two items, see?”
“Yes, I see. Funny, that seems obvious but I never thought of it before.”
The old lady smiled.
“Yes. Now, peg your socks in pairs. Spending time now to pair them will save you grief later on.”
“And that’s it for now love. Shall we get a cup of tea?”
Both women walked to Betty’s kitchen and sat down to several cups of tea and a long chat. Betty told Vanessa happy stories about Charlie and her other children. She told her how she’s waited to see her boy again for so long.
“It’s been a long time since he left, but I’ll see him soon you know”, said Betty.
“He told me so in a dream. I meet him there a lot. He seems different to me there but still looks the exact same. He has such a beautiful smile you know.”
Betty appeared to be somewhere else as she spoke about her little Charlie, staring into nothing. It was like she was with him, but still there, in her little scullery kitchen.
A couple months later Vanessa came home early from her job at the Library. She wasn’t feeling too good so she decided to leave and head home to bed for a couple of hours before the kids came in from school.
As she turned the corner onto Smithfield Street she saw the reflection of blue lights against the windows of the houses across the street. Her heart sank as she hurried her steps to see where it was coming from.
Brendan, her neighbour from a couple doors away was standing talking with the paramedics. They didn’t seem in a hurry.
“What’s going on Brendan,” She said.
“It’s Betty Veronica, she’s gone. The day nurse arrived at lunchtime and found her in the lounger. It was like she was still asleep.”
“She went quietly ma’am”, said the paramedic.
Brendan touched Vanessa on the shoulder. “I’m sorry Vanessa, I know the two of you were close. Jacqui her daughter was in touch just now. She said she’ll give the funeral details later this week”.
The paramedic closed the back doors on the ambulance, climbed into his cab and drove away slowly, blue lights still flashing lights.
Vanessa stood and watched it drive away, not knowing what to think or how to feel. It was a very still day, the sun was shining and the summer was breaking for Autumn. Little Charlie left this time of year, she thought.
Just then a breeze blew hard down the street, disturbing the mature beech trees that lined the road.
“Goodbye Betty”, she said.