Fiction > The Wash Stick

The Wash Stick

I told my mother about the miscarriage because she didn’t have any floor wax and we ended up doing the wash instead.  I think if I’d done her floors, curled up on my knees, eye to eye with all her dust balls, I’d never have opened my mouth.

That December week was the first time I felt human again.  I was explosive with energy and it felt good.  Alex and I took a few days off and drove to Blissfield to help my parents prepare for a huge and emotional change:  they were moving to a retirement home.  Under the circumstances, I wanted my mother to see me strong – robust, even, like she always thought her daughter should be.

            In the basement, we stood facing each other over her wringer washer.  Why she, with about a half million in certificates of deposit in the bank, had a wringer washer is another story.  The main thing is, it still worked and she knew how to use it.

            It was about 45 degrees down there but the hot water from the washer and its two coarse tubs on their warped wooden bench kept us warm.  She fished out each garment with her stick and threaded it into the wringers.  I caught each piece on the other side, making sure it didn’t slip under the wringer cover, and then I dipped it into the steamy tub and pushed it down.  My arms were red up to my elbows after awhile.  The rhythm was relaxing.

            “I’ve had this wash stick for more than 50 years,” my mother said, meditatively, after a few moments.  “I found it in the basement of that first house your father and I lived in right after we got married.  That was a great basement – we used to go down there during storms and stay longer than we had to.  We liked the way it smelled.”  She loved her sense of smell.  For her it was the luxury sense, the one everybody else forgot to mention.

            “It smelled like life down there,” she said.  “Not moldy, not mildewy – more fresh and clean, like rocks with a fresh stream going over them.  There must have been an underground river under there somewhere.”

            I tried to imagine my parents as youngsters, just starting out.  I had a picture I loved of the two of them in that first house, sitting primly, posing on either side of a kitchen table, a dinner for two set out on oilcloth.  There was almost nothing else in the room, but it appeared to be spotless, and my mother looked sober in an incongruous frilly apron, her dark hair perfectly marcelled.  I didn’t come along for another 15 years, just in time, she always said.

            “I’ve never known anybody else with a wash stick,” I ventured as she poked the thing in for another swirl. “I never even heard of such a thing, except here.  I suppose it’s because everybody else has washers.”

“How could a person do without it?” she said a bit defensively.  “You wouldn’t want to ruin your hands in all the soap and hot water.”  She pulled out the sawed-off broomstick and set it aside for the next load.  It smelled of bleach, each end rounded by years of pushing clothes down into suds.

            I knew well enough she was feeling sentimental that day.  She and my father had been on the waiting list for months, and now it looked like they had a place.  Her time was running out:  she’d have to leave some things behind.  She knew she wouldn’t be washing like this much longer.  Even at 75, she hung sheets on the line because she loved the way they smelled when they dried.  She did it even in winter, and the sheets would freeze solid and flap like huge record jackets.

            When we first went to see the place, they said she’d have to learn how to do her wash in the machines there.  She didn’t like calling it a “home”  -- she said it was too fancy for that.  It was impressive, like Tara, elaborately landscaped, with pillars on its wide front porch.  It was one of those places where you could move into your own little apartment and do your own cooking if you could still manage to, or you could buy tickets for the dining hall, or you could have partial care in your own rooms if you needed help getting around, or eventually, when you needed diapers and oxygen, you could have total care.  As you slid down toward death you moved into rooms that were progressively smaller and, it seemed to me, grimly bone white and claustrophobic.  And then when you kicked off they’d put you into the smallest box of all and sneak you out the back entrance.  My mother seemed to understand all this, pulling herself up as straight as her osteoporosis would allow, as if to declaim, I’m not ready for the next level.

            “Maybe housekeeping can help you,” the earnest young admissions man said.  My mother stood in the bristling whitewashed laundry room and surveyed the machines with worry.  I imagined she was thinking that learning to use those contraptions would be one of the worst things about moving in.

So this washday, probably her last in her own basement, she stirred her clothes slowly with the wash stick and got quiet.

            “Maybe you could take the wash stick with you, and keep it as a souvenir,” I said.  She looked at me as if she couldn’t believe I was hers.  She’d never have done such a thing.  “A wash stick belongs in the washing and nowhere else,” she said.  “If you’re going to get sentimental about it, it’s because of what you do with it, or used to do with it, not because you sit in your living room looking at.”  She wasn’t used to saying so much about a topic.  She took a breath.

            “You take it if you want it,” she said.  “I won’t have any use for it.”  She put the stick back in, stirred and pushed clothes into the wringer, moving her arms like an ancient ballerina.

            “Mom, I have to tell you something,” I said, whispering to myself, be sure you want to tell her.  Once you say it you can’t take it back.  “I lost a baby.”

            My mother guided one of my father’s flannel pajama tops into the wringer, into my hands.  She didn’t look up.

            “Did it hurt?”

            “Kind of…of course, I was only nine weeks, and we went to the hospital.  I was frightened and I wasn’t even sure at the very end if I really lost it.  I thought all along they might be able to save it or something.  That was silly, I guess.”

            She lifted out the wash stick and laid it across the top of the washer.  She looked up, out the small cellar window, where we could see my father walking by.  Since his stroke he had to concentrate on walking, and his careful gait made his old jeans look stiff as leather.  He was delighted to be able to walk again, and he looked in to see if she was watching.  She smiled at him. 

            “When your father and I were first trying to have you, I passed chunks sometimes,” she said.  “I had the feeling a union had occurred, but it didn’t take hold.”

            My mother’s language of sex had always been like this:  awkward, proud and clinical.  This time, it struck me that she used the word “chunks.”  In the hospital, among my friends, everyone was so careful what to call it.  My best friend Donna called it a baby, and since this pregnancy was my greatest pride, I did too.  The doctor called it “tissue,” and when he picked it out of me and placed it in an aluminum kidney bowl for lab tests, I wanted to see it.  The bloody little thing was as lost in the pan as a kitten in a king-sized bed.  I was disappointed that it did not have human form, the way the anti-abortionists always said it would.  Alex, standing next to me trying to stay calm as I stared at it, said of course we would try again.  I said no, we should forget about babies and go to Barbados or something. He looked perplexed.  I was the one who wanted it so much, making a sacrament of it every step of the way.  But when my mother used the word “chunks,” it was okay, a relief.

            “It’s Mother Nature,” she said.  “Better it didn’t go all the way, and then amount to trouble.  That would be worse.”

            “I know, I agree.”

            “Did you have someone with you?”

            “Of course, Mom, Alex was with me the whole time.  He was great.”

            She nodded as she piled in the next load, the darks.  “You’re always so cheerful.  You never tell me when things go wrong,” she said.

            I smiled, remembering how she railed about her cousin, who only wrote about new microwaves, trips to the Ozarks, and her poodle’s antics, even though everyone knew her daughter spent a fortune on cocaine and her son died of AIDS.  But my mother went the other way – often silent, brooding.  I thought she was unhappy.  Like everybody, I wanted my mother to be happy.  Like everybody, I thought making my mother happy was my job and I figured I hadn’t done a great job of it.

            “When did this happen?” she said.

            “It was when you were in the hospital, Mom.  I just didn’t think it was right to tell you then.”

            “What day exactly?”

            “A Monday.  The Monday you went in.”  It was that trip to the hospital that made everybody convince her:  she and my father had to leave.  The diagnosis was exhaustion.  That day she finally gave in and said, okay, I’ll go.

            “We were sharing our woes at the same time,” she said softly, almost formally.  “Blue Monday.”

            My mother stood her ground at the washer and I moved my arms up and down in the rinse tub.  If I cried she would pretend not to notice.  I thought how I cried the day after my miscarriage, how I threw myself into Donna’s arms, crying…piteously is the word that comes to mind, how I wept in my husband’s arms, into his hair, onto his shoulders the night it happened. 

“You were the biggest event of my life,” my mother said. “You were my happiest achievement, my surprise. Frankly, we’d given up.  And when I finally got pregnant with you, me staring 40 in the face, your father was so pleased. I loved him more for that, making you with me, than anything else he could have ever done.  You were worth the wait.”

She studiously went back to the washing, and I pretended not to notice her own tears dropping onto the wash stick, into the murky, foaming darks.

            Breakfast the next day:  Alex cooking, my mother blushing and smiling as she always did when he fussed over her, serving her as if she was a queen.  She took my father’s hand as he tried to put peanut butter on his eggs.  He was still learning how to eat.  He had to stop talking and concentrate very hard on everything he did.

            “We’re not leaving,” my mother announced.

            Alex sat down right away and I took her other hand.

            “I don’t want to leave and I’m not leaving.  I’d rather die here.  This is home.  Your father knows the way when he takes a walk.  I can’t make him learn a new route.”

            My father looked at her intensely and said, “Come here.  I want to tell you something.”

            She leaned closer to him, and he said, “I like you.” 

            “Here, darling, the peanut butter goes here, on your English muffin,” she said, guiding his hand. “And besides, if you two have a baby some day I want to be here, to show her things.  Or him, of course.”

            My father smiled beatifically at Alex and me as if he understood everything.

            Alex put his arm around me.  Then he pushed my hair up off my shoulder and my ear and whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

            She got her way.  It didn’t always work the way we wanted, but they stayed there for another two years, until he had another stroke and died, and she slipped away, in her own rocking chair, folding laundry, soon after.  I didn’t manage to give her a grandchild.  No baby, yet.  But we are still trying, before it’s too late.  And the wash stick leans against the wall, amazingly still fragrant with bleach, behind her old rocking chair.  I know I’m risking my mother’s practical derision from the grave.  But I love the old totem. I’m waiting for it to give me a sign, to break, against all reason, into bloom.