Skypainter

By Susan Reynolds Ballinger
Web Exclusive

clothesline against skyI love to round the corner of the street that curves down the hill toward our house and see the day’s new sky painting on my backyard clothesline. The clothes appear to be a line of fluid dancers, shouting out a rainbow of color. Sheets are my favorite medium in the palette basket. As I pull the fabric taunt and clip on the clothespin, the breeze blows the vast piece of cotton into an undulating wave of white. I glimpse bits of sky above sage-covered hills through the waves of fabric. Slap, flap, whoosh…: the billowing sheets sing a morning song. When the wind lulls, the freshly hung sheets go limp, taking a moment’s respite from sky dancing. My children giggle as they tuck in, under and between the damp walls of their secret clothesline fort.

“Hurry up, hurry!”, I remember impatiently chanting inside my head, some six years ago. My bare feet pressed hard into the dew-soaked grass. My mind pushed my fingers to fly and finish clothes-pinning each diaper. I was sure my toddler was dumping boxes of toys out onto the floor and his baby sister was probably wailing. I had a noon meal to prepare for out-of-state grandparents who would be driving up any minute. Boy, it was sure stressful to live out my lofty goals to conserve fossil fuels whenever free sunshine was streaming down. As a busy mom, it was hard to remain loyal to the conservation principles I use to teach when I was a biology instructor.

Finally, with the job done and the clothesline sagging under wet weight, I raced back into the house, feeling frenzied and frustrated about the lost time I’d incurred at the clothesline. It would have been an easy three minutes task to instead transfer the wet load into the natural gas-fired clothes-dryer.

Later that day, my mother-in-law looked out into the backyard, smiling. “I used to love hanging out the clothes on the line,” she reminisced. How could she say that? She had mothered nine children, canned, cooked, and cleaned while simultaneously running the office for the family’s home-based business. She liked hanging out clothes?

A few mornings later, after waving goodbye to the grandparents, I headed yet again for the washing machine. As I emptied the washer of the clean diapers, I decided to try on my mother-in-law’s attitude. The wet clothes sat in the basket while I settled my children inside so I could be uninterrupted. As I pushed open the screen door, I noticed the billowy clouds overhead. I set down my clothes basket and felt a gentle breeze tickle my neck. I noticed the coolness on my toes and recalled my childhood love of playing in our backyard in my nightgown. Here I was again, outside on a summer morning in my nightgown!

I tuned my ears to the mockingbird calling out from my neighbor’s rooftop. The faint whir of a hummingbird’s wings caught my attention and on tiptoe, I craned to see over the fence into a nearby flower garden. My eyes noticed the bright whiteness of each fresh diaper, once pinned, sharply framed with blue sky. The pleasantly repetitive clothes-pinning motions pushed thoughts aside and stilled my mind. I turned to go back up the steps into the house, I realized how pleasant the time at the clothesline had been. I wished I had another basket-load to hang up so I could stay out a bit longer.

A tedious chore had become a respite for my mind. I was freed from thinking about household chores and “to do” lists. I had the luxury of uncluttered thinking time. My botany instructor had recently presented a mathematical equation to determine how much water evaporates from a leaf given a certain wind speed and air temperature. Just as in a leaf, wind continually pushes the layer of water-saturated air away from cloth, allowing more water to leave it to saturate the new air. Thanks to the clothesline I took time to think about that equation and thus did well on the exam questions. I still marvel at the power of wind to evaporate water every time I line-dry clothing.

When we lived in the humid Midwest , we had many a summer day when dark thunderclouds rolled in. It was a game to try and outwit the thunderstorms. My neighbor, too, liked to hang out her sheets and we’d often find ourselves eyeing the sky at the same time. “What do you think, Kelly, is there time to dry now? More often than not, we’d choose to hang up the sheets. Half the time, I’d “win” my race with the raindrops and quickly unpin the last dry sheet as the first drops began to fall. The rest of the time, I’d “lose” and find myself grinning as I unpinned sopping wet clothes to be taken to the dryer after all.

Now that I live in central Washington State , the drying power in our blazing July sun and dry wind is a continual source of amazement for me. I like to pin up a load of heavy jeans and check for dampness in a 1/2 hour. More often than not, the thick cotton is already stiff and dry. I tend to use this same weather as an ironing board. If you stretch men’s dress shirts or the shoulders of a cotton dress and carefully pin on the shoulder seam, voila, no need to iron!

I enjoy the clothesline, even on cold, dry winter days. I recalled reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series and remembered how her winter line-dried cloths dried like boards. When I first hung out diapers on a winter morning, it was later great fun to stack the freeze-dried clothes into a pile. Once inside the house, I was thankful for my 20th Century life as I tossed a stack of diaper “boards” into the dryer for five minutes where they magically transformed into soft pliable cotton.

I’ve starting buying an array of different colored bandanas for cloth napkins, partly because I love to sky paint with them. They lay all wadded and wrinkled in the basket of freshly washed clothes, waiting for me to snap them open into a wide square of fabric paint. I pin them carefully in a line to fill the clothesline. Then the breeze takes over as the artist, brushing them loosely into moving blocks of color.

When we purchased our first house two years ago, I made clothesline plans even before the final papers were signed. Shortly after unloading the moving van I walked about the backyard, planning which view of the undulating sage-covered mountainside would be my picture frame. I knew that hanging out clothes would be a life-long creative endeavor for me and I needed the “top of the line.” clothesline. The Rolls-Royce model I selected had four retractable lines, and could be pulled out with one hand to the far end attachment. When not in use, it could be automatically coiled up into a casing fastened to the wall. I could enjoy my new tool and my husband would have fewer near neck disasters when he dashed through the yard. None of the hardware stores in my new town carried the style I wanted, so I drove with three kids for seven hours in the car to purchase my dream canvas in my parents’ town. With art on my mind, I happily ignored sibling squabbles and spilt snacks for that 500 mile round-trip. It was a successful shopping expedition and our new home became a sky painting studio.

My husband loves technology so he was enthusiastic for me to keep our elegant new clothesline properly equipped. Naively, I first stocked up on several bags of very cute, small, short clothespins from the grocery store. After finding my children industriously taking them apart, scattering pieces of wood and coiled metal about the yard, I realized that I needed more durable equipment. My next trip was to the hardware store to buy the longer clothespins that don’t come apart as easily. I also got some of the old-fashioned one-piece wooden pegs which are perfect for wedging thick jeans onto the line.

Of course, a sky painter must decide to be either a “liner” or a “storer” when it comes to clothespins. A “liner” leaves the pins fastened to the line while a storer drops them into a container between uses. It is convenient for me to be a liner, except when I am rushing around getting ready for guests and want to retract my lines into the casing or if I want to discourage investigative clothespin engineering by children. Lately, I’ve become a “storer” and use a bucket to plop each pin into as I take down items. I can dig out the correct clothespin style for each garment I hang. I try to not leave the filled bucket unattended in the yard as my children consider it to be a toy waiting and ready for play. Some veteran sky painters are actually “liner-storers” and use a special cloth storage bag that hangs from and slides along the line. I’ve put one of those bags on my birthday wish list!

My favorite time to sky paint is close to midnight . I’m in my nightgown, barefoot, and I’ve turned off all the house lights. I pick up the last basket of washing for the day, hoist it onto my left hip and quietly slide open the porch door to go out into the starlight. In the quiet of the night, the constellations watch me pin up shirts, shorts, and dish towels. The cool grass caresses my ankles and the breeze ripples my nightshirt. I drink in the sweet smells of shrubs and flowers in the yard. The blanket of dark feels secure around my shoulders. When the last washcloth is pinned up, I turn to go inside. As I slip into bed to join my sleeping husband, I love to bury my nose into my pillowcase. The wind-dried cotton smells of delicious fresh sunshine. I close my eyes and smile, thinking about the shout of color that will greet my eyes the next morning.

Susan lives in the shrub-steppe eco-region of Washington state with her husband, Paul, and three children, Tom (13), Kristen (11), and Lauren (9). She works part-time out of her home combining her skills as a biologist and an educator to do projects for local museums and government agencies. The Ballinger family enjoys biking, hiking, and skiing together on the east-side of the Cascade Mountains.