The Washing  
    Alison MacLaren

My mother is obsessed with the washing. Not the Fairy Liquid and plates stuff, which my sister and I have to take care of every night after dinner without fail, but the deadly serious matter of getting the laundry done. We do have a washing machine. The wetting part of the process is not a problem, it’s getting it all dried again. It is a never-ending chore which really should be assigned to one of us instead of going off to school each day. That might stop my mother getting so het up about it, but she’d never agree to that. Her attitude is that it’s not for us slackers who don’t take it seriously enough. No this job requires a professional. A professional weather barometer, an expert at the ten yard dash, a laundry soothsayer.

Have you any idea how often it rains in Scotland? Have you really? Even if you had the statistics in your hand, you still couldn’t get it, because it’s not just a matter of centimeters. In Scotland it rarely just pours down and gets it over with. Rain comes in all forms. But the most common and the most irritating if you rely on the outside air to dry your laundry is the drizzly type. It’s a teasing type of rain, one that hasn’t made its mind up whether to rain or not. It’s just like wet air, a faint mist of rain. The English call it Scotch Mist, but what do they know?

Unfortunately for mum, it doesn’t matter if it’s torrential or just smirring, it’ll still wet the clothes right through.

I think the whole thing is a lost cause anyway. No sooner has she pegged out the washing on the little square drying green than the first drops of rain begin to fall and mum makes a mad dash around the clothes line snapping the damp washing off in haste, wooden pegs flying, knickers, tea towels and socks landing on the muddy grass under screams of “In the name of the wee man”, and “For heavens sake!”

In a heavy downpour loud shouts summon help from indoors, ‘Get off your useless bottoms and help.” I laugh, screaming, “All hands on deck, she’s going down!” What a calamity. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. Her salt and pepper hair is plastered to her head and the narrow shoulders of her woolen cardigan are dark with damp. I often ask her, “Why can’t we get an electric clothes drier like other people?” Only to be met by a stony silence. Her vivid brown eyes look at me as though I’ve said something blasphemous.

When the rain is incessant, mum gives up with the outdoor strategy and drapes almost every horizontal object in the house with sheets and clothing.  The TV of course is dad’s domain and nothing must interfere with the Six O’clock News. In stormy weather, finding the way into the kitchen is a major exploratory venture as layers of soggy laundry drape from above. One of these days the sagging pulley is going to snap with the weight, sending down a bombardment of sheets with the heavy wooden spars to instantly shroud the unsuspecting person below. What a way to go.

Every heater around the house has mounds of clothes piled up on it, steaming fragrantly of Daz-whiter than white. When dinner time comes round the windows steam up completely, and I wonder with shame what the neighbors think of us. Whatever we have for dinner tonight will penetrate the fibers of our clothes. Oh, yummy it’s mince and tatties, onions, frozen peas and carrots. I consider taking my school uniform upstairs to dry in my bed- room with the hair drier.

That’s mum’s main preoccupation. If she did have an electric drier I don’t think she’d be happy. She lives for the constant struggle with the elements, the battle, the hardship. Though of course she does have that other fixation; she must get dad’s dinner on the table within two minutes of him coming in the door.  The soup must be boiling over and burning the stove and the mince must be sticking to the pot and the potatoes soft enough that mashing them is the only option.

“That’s your dad in!” she’ll announce with a nervous shrill in her voice around half past five while frantically stirring the soup with the ladle. Within seconds he’ll have his coat and hat off and be seated, still puffing from the exertion of walking from the bus stop. He has to wipe his glasses off when he enters the steamy kitchen. Mum and dad don’t embrace or anything. Kissing? Ha ha. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in our house. Whenever there is anything remotely romantic on TV, Dad just says, “Bah, nothing but love stuff!” and changes the channel. They hardly even acknowledge each other. No pleasant conversation about how has your day been darling? or any such thing. It’s like she’s doing her duty and that is that, no frills.

He’ll hunch over the table and blow and puff over the hot soup, bringing the spoon slowly up to his mouth, faster and faster until it’s almost done and my mother will whisk the bowl away just as he takes that last spoonful. It’s something to see, an orchestrated movement, practiced day in day out. ‘You’ll have another bowl Jim,’ she announces, “you’re all skin and bone.” He never contradicts her.

My mother makes light conversation that no one, least of all my dad, is especially interested in. “Oh Mrs. Carlisle is not well again, her daughter is visiting from Vancouver...The butcher has got a new slicer at long last, now we can get the gammon cut thin like old Mr. Purdon used to do...bla, bla, bla.”

While he’s finishing the second bowl she’s busy ladling out the mince, picking out the burned pieces from his plate and putting a dod of butter over the potatoes so that it looks like they’re supposed to be mashed. Again in a carefully planned movement, on his last spoonful of soup, up goes the bowl and down dumps the plate. Every night it’s the same. His face winces as though she’s scalded him and he says “Och! That’s far too much Gladis.” She ignores him and continues to dish up our meals.

We have barely started on our main course and she’s nagging one of us girls to “Get the kettle on!” This is crucial to the meal. She tells me repeatedly, "A good housewife is always thinking ahead." Pudding follows promptly thereafter. Something hot from the oven, apple tart or bread and butter pudding. For afters with the tea she always plies us with her baking and it’s normally heavy and hard to swallow. My father is so rude about her efforts, I don’t know why she bothers.

Sometimes we forget to set the table properly and get a row from dad. He’ll sit with his teaspoon and tap it on his cup of steaming tea until one of us realizes the omission. Why can’t he just ask, for goodness sake? Oh no! Then we get hell from mother, “Your dad’s sugar Alison, Brenda, quickly! How could you forget it? Your poor dad.” Couldn’t he get up off his bottom for a change? It’s as though he’s been slaving away at the coal face for the last fourteen hours rather than pushing around papers in the mail room.

Mother occasionally ventures a question about his work but he’ll just hold his hand up to shield further queries and shake his head wearily. Armed with his tea, he goes through to the sitting room for The Six O’clock News. She makes one last attempt to pass off the old scones by toasting them under the grill and disguising them with butter and jam. They do smell delicious. She takes them through on a plate but he’s busy watching the news with the newspaper on his lap. “How about a nice warm scone then, to finish off?” she asks and places them on the table next to him.

“Give us peace woman and get outa’ the road.” He shoos her away with the newspaper. I pick up the plate, but mum snaps, “I’ll take that,” and snatches the plate from me.

“Close the door!” Dad shouts. Mum pauses for a second and puts her hand on the sheets draped over the heater. Still damp.

Alison MacLaren has been published in Bay Area Parent and the San Jose Mercury News. Her commentary was featured on "Fresh Air" on KQED radio station, San Francisco. She writes for

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