My mother had a repertoire of platitudes and proverbs that she was prone to announce at opportune moments. They were to intended to convey life lessons and lasting impressions.
If one of us whistled absentmindedly at mealtime, she’d say it was bad luck to whistle at the table. I suppose it was an unfortunate event, as the ill-fated musician was always sent from table after exhibiting an unattractive display of partly chewed mashed potatoes or fried sausage.
As she brushed wayward locks away from my face, she would say that hair hanging in the eyes caused blindness. I think the eye impairment was actually a simple case of obscured vision.
My mother was also an authority on laundry. Her arsenal of fabric cleaning strategies weakened the most offensive stain. Her colours were always bright, and more importantly, her whites were spotless. Towels, like snowy kites, flurried in the breeze, pristine sheets snapped crisply, unfurling like a ship’s sail, and undershirts marched shoulder to shoulder in immaculate orderliness.
I was in awe of the washday procedure. The wringer washer would be wheeled out from its hiding place and multiple hoses snaked across the porch. Suds frothed and churned and the washer hummed a steady tune, while wisps escaped from beneath the lid. Then, Mother fed the steamy clothes through the wringer, and I watched in fascination as the rollers gobbled the laundry.
“Can I try?” I’d ask every time, cold fear and tingly hope quivering through me, imagining the bite of the wringer as much I anticipated the warm froth running over my hands. She always shook her head. I wondered if her fingers had ever gotten caught.
From the neighbours’ porches, I could hear the humming of other washers, and soon the squeal of pulleys would announce that freshly scrubbed clothes were drying, long lines of sauntering socks, striding jeans, and underwear discreetly folded in half and pinned snugly together.
It was on such a morning that Mother stood at the porch railing and ran her eyes along the Fieldings’ clothesline next door. Her mouth became a thin, tight line.
“It’s not good to air dirty laundry,” she remarked to Mrs. Casey, who was sitting in our porch chair drinking coffee.
I looked up from my doll carriage, where I’d been patting an uncooperative Baby Loves-a-Lot to sleep, and regarded the cheerfully waving clothing next door. Flowered skirts flounced merrily alongside gaily striped spotless tea-towels, and there were no grass stains on any of the boys’ jeans.
Mrs. Casey leaned closer to my mother and whispered covertly, with an eye on me.
“...About town... never home... a small problem... someone else...” The disjointed fragments of words made no sense to me, and I didn’t understand what it had to do with laundry, especially when Mrs. Fielding’s laundry was perfectly clean and bright.
My mother lifted an eyebrow and shrugged her shoulder at the clothesline. “Well, it seems to be a big problem now.”
“I see that,” remarked Mrs. Casey.
“I don’t imagine she is lily-white, either,” my mother added.
It must be about the whites, then, I thought. But the heels of all the socks were immaculate, bibs and aprons were unstained; even the carefully folded underwear was spotless.
I was puzzled. The whites were as white as could be. Not a thread of dirty laundry could I see. Nothing was amiss, it seemed.
“A terrible thing for the children. It’s difficult, all round.” Mrs. Casey tsk-tsked into her coffee cup, shaking her head.
My mother nodded in agreement, then as if seeing me for the first time, began to speak earnestly and rather exuberantly about meatloaf recipes and aphids on roses.
Not long afterwards, an accident of discovery brought the answer to my stubbornly inquisitive mind. My plain curiosity and nosiness.
It was the laundry that gave it away, after all. It was obvious, once I figured it out.
Mr. Fielding didn’t come home to his family anymore.
The inadvertent announcement of his abrupt and permanent departure was declared by the obvious absence of his white shirts fluttering in washday winds, and the disappearance of impeccably clean handkerchiefs and undershirts.
It would be many more years before I understood that the dirty laundry my mother spoke of was not really about laundry at all.
Sometimes, things can’t be whitened by any amount of bleach and hot water.
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