By Rebecca Balcarcel
Fifteen dollars, a trip to the local hardware store, and I was all set. One retractable clothesline, guaranteed not to break, rust, or raise the electric bill. Since I own a perfectly-running dryer, more than a few folks wondered at my new purchase. At the store, clerks passed my question back and forth like a smelly cloth diaper. “Clothesline did you say? Let me ask hardware.” “A clothesline? Let me check with domestics.” “Do you mean a line for hanging clothing? Stay right there; I’ll find the manager.” I finally scooped the single dusty package off the shelf. Back home, the neighbor grabbed my elbow and rolled her eyes, “My mother hung out clothes for all seven of us – what a headache!” A friend asked tactfully about my plan for cold weather and rain. I think my mother assumed my dryer had collapsed and considered offering me her Sears card. The truth was, I actually wanted a clothesline.
My kids didn’t criticize the clothesline; they thought it might be fun. They even promised to help pin socks, though I didn’t hold them to it. What they envisioned more clearly was my presence in the back yard. And that, in fact, was my reason for buying. Over the last year, my three sons has eased into a new stage. Instead of pulling at my wrist with, “Mommy, will you come outside with me?” they tossed “We’re going outside” over their disappearing shoulders. As the back door slammed, I smiled to see their confidence and growing independence. I soaked up that hour of solitude with pleasure, but in time, I wanted to open that door. As my three boys romped through the warm spring afternoons, I found that I wanted to join them.
The boys didn’t need me to keep them from eating bugs or referee their play anymore, so I needed an activity of my own to pull me out the door. My gardening skills fall into the Remedial category, and I didn’t need to push the reel mower around every day. In times past, I’d spent outdoor hours in a lawn chair with a book. But this year, the spring air inspired me to move my muscles, do productive work. I wanted to labor, then walk in the house with something to show for my efforts. Why not hang clothes? I pictured myself in a billowing prairie skirt, sunbonnet hanging by the strings.
This idyll isn’t everyone’s picture of a clothesline in use. My mother, for instance, would rather sort junk mail than lug a basket of soaked towels onto the lawn. Wedged comfortably in the middle of middle class, my mother owned a dryer all her adult life. She loved her fantastic labor-saving device, and so did I. In my teens, I didn’t know anyone who line-dried. Why would they? After all, those were the days when many chores still required hand labor — turning the TV on and off for example. Kidding aside, we appreciated her Kenmore, and I did plan to use my own dryer on rainy days. But I hoped to hear the squeak of clothespin springs as much as possible.
Since Mom and I enjoy a close relationship, I expected her to understand my clothesline. After all, she came to grips with my trip to Europe with a back pack and no hotel reservations, my dropping out of college twice, and marrying an idealist. I was surprised at her frown over my clothesline. As we talked, I realized that were we to tally activities into two distinct columns titled Recreation, and Chore, I would write hanging clothes under Recreation. She would write paging through mail-order catalogs. Stand in sunshine sounds great to me, but Mom says, “You mean become mosquito target.” Watch the kids play we agreed on; hence her ability to eventually understand my clothesline reasoning.
I’d negotiated Mom’s blessing, but still I hesitated. The dusty package sat on the dining table through a few meals. I faced a formidable Second Thought because of what I now call the Clothesline Image Problem. During my teens, clotheslines acquired shadows of poverty and low-class life in my mind. Maybe this grew out of the fact that my high school of future lawyers and doctors never added a clothesline to their lists of most-wanted amenities for their gated communities. When spying undershirts hung between inner-city tenements, even on television, I imagined murmurs that included the word “trash.” For the upwardly mobile in my neighborhood, public display of one’s underwear, even clean, designer underwear, meant not just lack of money, but lack of opportunities and what professors in my midst called “scope.” The clothesline embodied despair. It equaled Dead End. I shooed away worries that our clothesline might prevent my children from going to college.
Even though my children’s future might remain un-jeopardized by my new purchase, putting up a clothesline made me feel a bit self-conscious. No city ordinance prevented it, but until now, I had agreed with some imagined suburban consensus that runs: Clotheslines look ugly, even with nothing on them. Clotheslines tie the unliberated woman (me) to domesticity. Clotheslines belong to the past, a piece of the “before” behind a great and glamorous “after” of technological wonders. No one in her right mind would want one.
So as I filled a cloth bag with wooden pins, I banished the clothesline baggage. I told myself I could enjoy a clothesline without stigma. I would be bold, going where no highly-educated feminist in the twenty-first century (at least none that I knew) had gone before. And, anyway, I’d bought a low-profile, retractable version of the you-know-what.
Just when I started recovering from clothesline guilt, my mother-in-law phoned. Rather than raise her eyebrows, she confided that she felt guilty for not using a clothesline. Whether this came out of ecological concern or respect for her own mother’s Law of the Line (Never trust your clothes to a machine?), I could only guess. Perhaps she, too, enjoyed the peace of pinning and the excuse to get out of doors. I think she loved the smell of sunshine in a blouse and the sound of shirts snapping in the wind.
We strung the line between the wooden swingset and a tree. Now that I use it regularly, I’ve noticed some changes in my life. I notice weather now, and appraise it for drying potential. I also accept washing as a part of life’s rhythm without grumbling. Knowing that a sunny time in the grass awaits, I gather whites with a more of a spring in my step. Best of all, I witness more of my boys’ outdoor play. Dragons set fire to the line; fire-fighting knights save the day. I overhear their games and antics, and feel more connected to their world. I’ve never seen hanging clothes on a list of options for spending “quality time” with kids, but for us, that’s how it’s working. The clothesline has become my rein for slowing down, a thread to follow into my children’s lives, a cord that draws us together.
Rebecca Balcarcel’s poems and essays have appeared in over 20 journals and magazines, including North American Review, Concho River Review, and South Dakota Review. She is Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College and mothers three boys. She home-birthed her twins, breast-fed all three boys, and homeschools. www.stripedgazelle.org/rebecca.