The Basement Laundry by
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(89 Stories)

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Not our basement, but definitely a look-alike.

Unlike the barracks and prefabs we had lived in, the modest new house in East Lansing had a righteous Midwestern full, unfinished basement.  Wooden staircase near the back door, cinder block walls, divided in two sides.  Washing machine and dryer, furnace, storage, and tools on one side; if we had canned, the fruits and vegetables would have been stacked there too. Ultimately, the other side got painted walls, linoleum, a couch and TV, toys and doll furniture. In case of a tornado warning, the basement’s northwest corner was our shelter.

Heaven forbid we would have a TV in the living room, so in the evenings we would watch it downstairs–Mitch Miller (sing along!) and Perry Como–while my mother ironed the clothes.  They were stacked in damp rolls inside a dish towel before being smoothed into shirts and dresses and then placed on hangers.  Suddenly realizing that the people on TV might have actual lives, I asked, “Do you think Perry Como has a wife too?”  Mother: “I imagine so.”  Filled with wonder, I followed up, “Do you think she could be ironing while watching his show, just like us?”  My mother, probably with an eye roll: “I doubt it.”

One day a shipment arrived from afar—a whole case of nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce), which my dad developed a taste for while we were in Saigon. It was destined for the storage side of the basement.  Somehow in the excitement of the delivery, the case was dropped and at least one bottle was smashed, creating an overwhelming pungent pall of fish throughout the room that lasted for weeks.  My mother was not amused, especially as she not only didn’t share his love of nuoc mam, but also had to schlepp up and down the stairs regularly for the laundry.  This now meant braving the persistent odor while she hung the sheets on the basement clothes lines .

When we moved to Bethesda during my high school years, there was no basement, just a “utility room” on the ground floor.  My mother hated that room, which she quickly renamed the “futility room”.  It was maybe 11 cramped feet square, stuffed with a washer and dryer, a furnace and very little storage space, She complained bitterly.  She still hung up the sheets, but it created a dense maze in the tiny room. That was just how sheets were done, even though cotton was becoming cotton blend and less wrinkly, and dryers were more efficient.  And of course, there were no fitted sheets—the top sheets were rotated each week to the bottom before being washed.  By now, we girls were old enough to inherit the job of retrieving the clothes from the dryer while they were still damp, rolling them up and stacking them in the dishtowel, and then ironing with the steam settings, still watching TV but in the adjacent family room.  Shirts were done collars first, then shoulders, then cuffs and sleeves, then front and back.  It was the sixties, and my mother grumbled about the assumption that she was responsible for my father’s laundry at all.  After the kids moved out he took his shirts to the cleaner’s.

Years later, when I bought a little house in Oakland, I was thrilled to have a washer and dryer tucked a bit awkwardly into the generous crawl space under the house. No more laundromat for me! It helped that I was not very tall.  When my mother visited, I bragged about how great it was to have the appliances, and how perfect that they were out of the way in the (albeit small) basement where laundry belonged!  But I must have mistaken my mother’s scorn of the “futility room” for a dislike of laundry on the same floor, because she raised her eyebrows quizzically—wherever had I gotten that idea?  She had always loathed going up and down stairs into the basement to do laundry.

When we renovated the house where I now live, the laundry went right next to the bedroom, with a pass-through chute.  My mother would have approved.

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love that you all watched TV in the basement while you mother ironed and you asked her if Perry Como’s wife was also ironing and watching him on TV. I’m sure your mother was rolling her eyes.

    We have been lucky to have dryers, as well as washing machines in every place we’ve lived (in apartments, they were coin operated, so I had to keep a roll of quarters around, but at least I didn’t have to go to a laundromat). In our first Boston condo (only five units), there was a communal, stacked washer/dryer unit in a closet in common space on the first floor. We lived in the 5th floor walk-up. That was fun! In our next condo, we had our own stackable unit in the condo, which was great since we had our first baby there and babies generate a lot of laundry.

    Before a major renovation to our Martha’s Vineyard house, the laundry was on the second floor at the back of the house (our architect commented that it had the best view of the garden). We moved it downstairs as part of a major build-out in 2003, putting a chute from my closet in the main bedroom straight down to the laundry room. We also discovered that the floor of the old laundry room was not properly built and the whole thing (right above the kitchen seating area) could have landed on our heads at any moment!

  2. Sweet story Khati, I too have written about my childhood basement/laundry memories.

    After they left the washing machine, all our clothes were hung to dry on clotheslines down there. I never asked why my folks didn’t invest in a dryer! It also took awhile before we got a dishwasher in the kitchen,, what stoics were our moms!!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Same here—we didn’t have a dishwasher until I was in high school, and it wasn’t that good. The three girls were the dishwashers, dryers sweepers, table setters and clearers. Hanging clothes to dry works well, and electricity was expensive. These were new machines and parents grew up without them. And sheets were big and heavy and cotton and wouldn’t dry well otherwise I think. And mothers made our clothes and everyone wore hand me downs and we walked to school alone and sheesh I feel like a real dinosaur.

      • Khati, you and your sisters deserve much more credit than my sister and I – I don’t remember helping my mother very much!

        And altho she did all the cooking, she worked as a school teacher, and it was a housekeeper named Odessa who did the laundry and cleaned our 3 story house which included my dad’s 1st floor medical office.

        Odessa worked for my folks for many years and was an unforgettable person, I hope to write about her!

        • Khati Hendry says:

          My mother also hired a housekeeper (with her own pay check) when she was teaching full time and we moved to Bethesda, but we still did our own cooking and laundry and dishes. Housework is so important and undervalued! As are childcare and house maintenance and gardening and all the things that used to be what work was all about.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story evokes so many memories of my midwestern childhood. Watching my mother iron furiously while watching the McCarthy hearings. Learning how to iron by doing my father’s handkerchieves. Graduating to shirts ironed exactly as you described. As the only daughter, I served as my mother’s apprentice.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      We share Midwest generational white memories for sure. So glad some things have evolved, including athleisure we don’t have to iron, and roles of women. Still infuriating to watch the news on TV unfortunately.

  4. Marian says:

    This story brings back so many memories, Khati. Housework was harder back in the day! Laundry up and down the stairs … For some reason we ironed in the dining room, and like Laurie, I learned first on my dad’s handkerchiefs before graduating to shirts (done exactly like you explain). As the only girl child, I struggled, and to this day I’m a C+ ironer. Yes, a laundry prompt would be terrific!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      My laundry room now has drywall and a real floor and heating and a counter—not the cinder block dank basement experience that seems to have been so universal. What luxury! I feel like June Cleaver in shirtwaist and pearls ha ha. We do all have laundry stories.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    A delightfully evocative story, Khati, about your basements. Indeed, you really had me from your first sentence about a “righteous Midwestern full, unfinished basement.” Plus, I have to wonder if you and Laurie got your photos of basement washing machines from the same sourse; they’re certainly from the same era.

    I loved all the vignettes, but especially the Perry Como and fish suace ones. But, more than ever, I almost laughed out load (something I never doe when reading” about the “futility room.” As this story shows, your mother had quite the dry wit. Indeed, I’m kicking myself for not having coined that phrase myself. (I may have to steal it — with attribution, of course.)

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I got picture off the internet, but it could have been Laurie’s basement too I think (except she had the wringer washer). I had to smile that you laughed “out load”—a deliberate modification or spellcheck? My mother could be quite dry indeed, and you are welcome to adopt “futility room” into your lexicon. Enjoy!

  6. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Khati, and coming late to the comments, I just have to agree with what everyone else said. I will repeat the mention of asking if Perry Como’s wife did the ironing while she watched his show, because that is one of the best ’50s memories I have ever read about!

    I’m adding Laundry to the list of prompts right now, although it will be a few months until we can get to it.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Watching Mitch Miller is one of my earliest memories. We called him “Itchy Mitch” because of his odd (to us, at least) conducting style.

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