My mother was born and raised in West Texas on a dryland farm. It was a hard life, especially during the Great Depression when the area was pummeled by dust storms of such magnitude that I can hardly imagine them. I am often thankful that I don’t have to work as hard as they did, that I have so many modern conveniences that were unheard of then. Mainly I am thankful for my washer and dryer.

Washday, in those West Texas years was anything but fun, and Mama would grimace when she told the stories. Clothes were washed in a big black pot that my grandmother and her three daughters filled with water from the well and centered over a fire in the front yard. As the water heated, one of them would shave slices from a bar of lye soap, which they’d made, into the water.

The agitator was a long stick, smooth and white after many years of being dunked into that lye water.

After each load of clothes had been boiled and rubbed against a rub-board, the clothes were lifted out of the water, dropped into a barrel of cool water, rinsed, rung out and hung on the clothesline. It was a big family, Granny and Papa, six boys, three girls – a lot to wash. It would have been sheets and towels, mostly, and a set of work clothes for each of them. The only other clothes they had were Sunday clothes for church, and those wouldn’t have been washed very often. Still, the task took most of the day.

More chores to do

When the last load was hanging on the line, the girls carried the pot of lye water into the house and dumped it on the wooden floor. A good scrub with a broom took care of most of the dirt. And the job was finished for another week.

Washing clothes, of course, was only one of the chores they had to do. My mother was the youngest girl, so she looked after her three little brothers while her older sisters helped Granny. Mama and her brothers were often taken to the fields to hoe weeds. Long rows of cotton or corn loomed before them in the blistering sun, a frightful sight, I’m sure, for kids no older than 10. There wasn’t much time for play.

Cooking was an all-day job. There were no frozen TV dinners, no Hamburger Helper, no Wonder Bread. They cooked everything they ate – three big meals a day with the midday dinner (what we call lunch) being the largest, a meal with meat and two or three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, buttermilk and maybe a cobbler from diced peaches. Breakfasts were big – they always had ham and bacon, eggs, oatmeal. Listening to Mama tell about, it seemed to me they were cooking Thanksgiving dinner every day.

I often think of these stories when I’m throwing in a load of clothes. It seems as if it’s not much to do, but I wash clothes several times a week. Sometimes, when I’m in a “poor little me” mood, I feel as if I actually work harder than my grandmother.

Perspective helps

At least, I tell myself, I have more to do than she did even though it isn’t as physically challenging. I’ve always worked outside the house, often, with three or four jobs at the same time, being gone from the house 12 hours a day, four or five days a week. I’ve quit being that stupid, but still it seems as if I’m working all the time. Even Sundays are filled with things I “have” to do.

However, on a recent Sunday when the snow was howling past the window horizontally, I was quite thankful that come Monday morning, I didn’t have to do laundry out in the yard in a pot on a fire. Or in a pot placed on top a wood stove, as I’m sure my other grandmother did laundry. She lived in Kingfield, Maine, and I’ll bet she worked as hard as my Texas grandmother.

Probably her clothes were hung on lines where they froze dry in the winter. She had six children to look after. My grandfather was a trapper, so he was gone all the time. She had everything to do by herself.

Yes, I have a lot of things to do, but I wouldn’t trade places with either of my grandmothers.

And even though I do laundry two or three times a week, it just isn’t the same thing. Remembering the stories of my granny’s day-to-day life helps me put things into perspective, and when I’m having a pity party, all I have to do is think of her job, and I can’t find a thing to complain about mine.

Jeanette Baldridge is a writer and teacher who lives in West Paris, who is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.