1944—Laundry and Lambs in the Basement
I am twelve years old. The basement of my house on Garfield Avenue includes a fruit cellar, laundry room, workshop for my father’s carpentry, and furnace. The fruit cellar contains preserves put up by my mother and grandmother—mostly strawberries, raspberries and other fruit picked in season—and nonperishable produce such as potatoes and onions. The fruit cellar is dark, with dirt walls and sometimes the tiny scampering sound of mice. Spiders crawl over the walls.
At the other end of the basement, the laundry area has an electric washing machine with a wringer installed just above it. Soiled clothes and linens are delivered to the area by a chute leading from the kitchen to the basement. My dream is to take a death-defying trip down the chute to the basement. By the time I’m old enough to have the nerve, I’m too big to fit in the chute.
Like everyone else, we have no clothes dryer. We never heard of them. Everything is hung in the back yard on a line after most of the water is squeezed out by the electric wringer. On a sunny day, the clothespins can be pulled off the clothes after a couple of hours and the dry laundry brought inside.
Laundry day is always Monday. My job is to strip the beds and force the sheets down the laundry chute. Laundry baskets in our bedrooms are emptied into the chute. In the basement the lid has been removed from the square, industrial looking wash machine, with mother pouring fels naphtha laundry soap in the water. Next she pokes clothes deep into the water with a long stick and jiggles it around the be sure they’re distributed evenly. Once Mother is satisfied, she turns the rotor on. As I watch the clothes swish back and forth, back and forth, the water turns grey. When mother has determined that the laundry is clean enough, it’s time to turn off the rotary blade and turn on the electric wringer, installed just above the machine.
This is the part I like best. “Can I run the wringer this time, Mom? It’s my turn. Pleeeze?”
“Your sister hasn’t had a turn yet, Barbara.”
“But she’s too little, Mom. Let me do it. Please?”
“No, it’s too dangerous.”
Even at the age of eight I know something is wrong with her logic. It’s true, the wringer is dangerous. You get your fingers too close and they’ll be mashed. At least that’s what Mother says. It hasn’t happened yet.
Sometimes the basement also serves as a temporary shelter for animals my father or grandfather brings home. This is always a happy surprise event. We don’t get any forewarning. If we did, Mother would never allow it.
We once have three beagle puppies at a time, thanks to my grandfather, who can’t resist puppies. They’re housed in the basement and named Spottie, Tiny, and Smokey Joe. My mother, fearful of my father’s frightening temper, doesn’t say anything when the whimpering puppies are carried to the basement. After a few nights of nonstop howling and barking, it’s too much for her. She doesn’t sleep a wink that night. To my dismay, the puppies are exiled to the garage.
We keep turtles and frogs in the basement, too, but somehow they always escape during the night. I never figure out where they go, although I suspect my mother has a hand in it.
The most exciting pet is a newborn lamb. My grandfather brings it home from a fresh meat market next to his and my dad’s produce business on the waterfront. The lamb is only a few days old and has to be bottle-fed every two or three hours. The worst part is not the nonstop feeding, but the nonstop pooing and peeing on the garage floor. Clean-up is my job.
Sometimes I take the lamb for walks around the block. By this time he has a name—Curly. I love the sensation Curly causes in the neighborhood. Of course, he’s right on my heels because that’s what lambs do. One day, my parents and fifth grade teacher agree that I can bring the lamb to school. I am very popular that day. The glow lasts for a day or two. Then a kid brings in a snake.
My mother puts up with a lot, but a newborn lamb is too much. Luckily, our family doctor, Dr. Wheelihan, agrees to give Curly a happy retirement on his family farm. Every Christmas we get updates on the sheep’s health. He lives to a ripe old age, old enough so that by time I’m sent off to college, I’ve forgotten about him.
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