Yesterday I did eight loads of wash, the inevitable result of having guests and then going on vacation. All those baskets of laundry sorted and waiting reminded me of something that happened when I was very young. We lived on the eastern outskirts of the city. Our ‘development’ was the last one before primeval forest sprang up, and it started out with few amenities. Our small, two-bedroom house had been built by our father. The streets were raw dirt, and a few poles with wire strung between brought us electricity. We had an old gas stove in the kitchen. The outhouse in the back yard was frequently in use, even in bitterly cold winters. When Mom needed water, she had to walk down the long street as she carried two large pails and told us to keep up. She would set the pails on the ground in Mrs. W’s yard and vigorously pump for water, all under the watchful eye of our formidable neighbor. (Mom was intimidated by Mrs. W, whose waxed hardwood floors were so clean you could eat off them, and who frequently criticized Mom’s homemaking skills.) Then came the long trudge back up the street to our house, with those heavy pails as full as Mom could get them. She guarded that water and used every drop wisely. Mom was the original recycler. Water used to bathe us kids was saved to wash the floor, and then was poured on the thirsty vegetable garden. The rain barrel on the side of the house caught water from the roof and was sweet and good to drink.
Eventually the city caught up to us, and they put in asphalt streets, cement sidewalks, and best of all, water pipes that made indoor plumbing a possibility. We cheered as Dad tore down the old outhouse and introduced us to the indoor flushing toilet. Mom was especially thrilled. She didn’t have to be beholden to the neighbor anymore.
One day my father brought home the latest and best model of a washing machine. We kids stared at it in admiration. It was a cream colored cylinder with an electric agitator, and attached on top was a wringer that you had to hand crank as you fed the wet clothing through. Mom was very happy. Now maybe life would be easier. We kids were fascinated by this new gadget. We had to try it out. While Mom had a nap, we dropped our clothes into the washer, dumped in a cup of soap, turned it on, and watched the water fill, the cloth swishing back and forth, and the bubbles foaming up. When the washer stopped agitating, we began to pull the heavy wet cloth up to the wringer and feed it through. Almost at once, my little sister got her hand stuck in the wringer. She screamed continuously as we frantically backed up the wringer and got her hand out. Fortunately she didn’t suffer any permanent damage. After that, Mom did the laundry. She separated out the loads into big piles on the floor, which we jumped into, the way other kids would jump into a pile of leaves. Someone else really enjoyed having these large piles of clothing on the floor. Our kitten, Pussywillow, loved to burrow into the piles, make himself a little nest, and snooze as the golden sun streamed in the window.
One day Mom came in, intent on getting the laundry done. She grabbed a large armful of clothing and stuffed it into the washing machine. She dumped in the soap and flipped the switch. Water began to fill the tub. Mom went back to her work in the kitchen. Suddenly, the house was filled with a terrified yowling. At first we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Then we knew. Poor Pussywillow was facing a watery grave. We all rushed to the washing machine, and Mom yanked on the electric cord. The washing machine ground to a stop. Mom pulled the water-logged kitten out of the washing machine. In a whirlwind of claws, teeth, and angry spitting, the kitten climbed up Mom’s arm, launched himself to the floor, and dashed out the door. We watched as the tiny creature raced across the yard, intent on getting as far away from that monster as he could. After that, he would never go near the washing machine, he was extremely suspicious of piles of clothing, and he absolutely hated getting wet.
Many years have gone by since that day. In his old age, Pussywillow, by then a scarred veteran warrior, eventually did meet his “Waterloo.” The house and neighborhood look a lot smaller now than they did when I was a child. Washers are now complicated machines that will do all kinds of stunts at the push of a button, and most people today have no idea how great a blessing it is to have indoor plumbing. (Cats will of course have a different opinion on the subject.)