by Kay Etheredge
My mom was serious about laundry. In the myriads of memories I have of my mom, she was almost always in the kitchen, at the sewing machine, or doing laundry. What that meant for our family of 6 was that she washed everything in our washing machine but we had no dryer, so the clothes were taken from the washer to our clothesline in our back yard and hung out to dry. This hanging in the sunshine and flapping to and fro in whatever wind might be blowing produced a smell that no laundry product on the market can replicate. When the clothes were brought inside the whole house took on that smell. My mom liked to gather the clothes that needed ironing while they were still partially damp. She would go right to the ironing board with those, and the ones she couldn’t get to right away were placed in a large, plastic zippered bag and put in the refrigerator to keep them damp. If the clothes had already dried, she had a used, quart-sized Clorox bottle that she had poked holes into the top of and she sprinkled that water over the clothes to re-dampen them. I can still hear the hissing and spitting and belching of the steam iron as it touched those damp clothes. The rising steam produced a smell of its own as it mingled with the fresh outdoorsy smell of the clothes.
I would sit at the kitchen table and watch my mom iron, and every so often I would ask if I could iron something myself. She always told me I was too small and would burn myself, but one day she said she would show me how to iron my dad’s handkerchiefs. She showed me how to take the large squares of fabric, some with colored bands of brown and blue around the edges, and fold them. They were folded first into a large rectangle, then pressed and creased. Next another square. Press and Crease. The final product was a small creased square that would fit neatly and without bulk in my dad’s back pocket.
Recently I was folding laundry and came across several of my husband’s handkerchiefs. It was the folding of those that caused me to revisit the memories of my first ironing, which then sent me deep into thought about my mother’s gracious and diligent doing and re-doing of laundry…she seemed to be passionate about something that is such a chore, and she was good at it. And as I thought about it I was hit with the realization that my dad rarely, if ever, dressed up. Our family didn’t attend church, even though I regularly attended Sunday school at a small church in our community. My dad was a welder in the Steel Shop at Alabama Power Company. He wore khaki colored uniforms to work…matching shirts and pants. Even those were pristine when he left each morning, his white tee-shirt showing at the neck of his shirt, but when he came home in the afternoons it was a different story.
He stepped out of the car in the driveway he wore the grease, grime and sweat that only working with and around steel can produce. When I ran to hug him each day he smelled like a cross between the Viceroy cigarettes he smoked, the steel residue that clung to his work boots and uniform, and the Juicy Fruit chewing gum he always carried in his front shirt pocket. And I realize now that as dirty and hot and grimy as his job was, he always carried a neatly pressed handkerchief in his pocket.
Why did my mom take the time to do that? Why did it really matter if the handkerchiefs were ironed or not? I realize now that it was just one of the ways that my mom, a pretty undemonstrative person, showed her love. The meticulous way that she did the laundry was more than a chore for her. She did it well. She took pride in the knowing how and the caring and toting load after load to the clothesline and the bringing load after load inside to iron and hang in one of only 4 small closets in our home. There was no stain that was insurmountable, no tear that was too daunting to mend. My three brothers wore blue jeans that were patched and re-patched and when the knees were too frayed to patch again they were cut off into shorts for the summer. My dad, a stick welder whose salary was just barely enough to feed the 6 of us, wore uniforms that were as clean and pressed as if he were a corporate mogul.
When I think of my mom and our family’s laundry I think that maybe God takes that kind of joy and pride in His own. His love and mercies erase the stains of our sin. He patiently mends what we destroy. He creases and folds and there is great order in how and why He does what He does, even though many times we deem His acts random or unkind. He is constantly refining us and He does it with great precision. He knows what He is about. It is a joy to see Him working in the lives of the men here at Brother Bryan Mission. Some know Him deeply and intimately; some are still figuring it out. The staff here works long hours for small pay and they do it because it is a calling and when one enters these doors it is a mission field. Men’s lives hang in the balance. Like laundry, they have the opportunity to leave with a fresh, clean scent…a scent that can be an invitation in each man’s sphere of influence.
My daddy was good at what he did. He worked hard, long days. The clothesline posts in our back yard were made by him from steel, welded and mounted and strung with clothesline for a mom who was content to stay home with little ones, stand at the stove, and wash and hang out clothes. The smell of laundry filled our home like a promise. And my daddy welded, day after day, and the sparks would burn holes in his uniforms that he knew could and would be mended. And when he stopped to wipe sweat from a face soiled with steel grime, he did it with a starched and crisply pressed handkerchief.