When Work Was Play
Mary Ellen Gambutti
The laundry room was the unfinished side of our mid-century New Jersey basement, where Julia, my Nana, was in command of the Maytag wringer washer. Her husband, Mike, had bought it for her in 1928, to use on the front porch of their white Pennsylvania clapboard house, and it was an improvement over a metal wash tub in the yard. When they left for New York City to find work around 1930, they brought the machine with them, and Mike replaced the gas motor with electric, so the Maytag could be placed in the tenement kitchen on West Broadway. A shallow, white enamel roasting pan was still catching random oil drips in the 1950’s through the early ‘70’s, when the Maytag disappeared from our basement.
I help Nana on wash day. I enjoy the rhythmic, soft clunk of the agitator against simultaneous swish of suds. She gives me a small muslin bag of bluing to drop into the clear, cold rinse water on the right side of two concrete attached tubs, where the white socks swim. She soaks Granddaddy’s greasy pants in the soapy wash water that, she says, “extracts” from the black hose into the left tub. Nana watches me carefully feed socks into the wringer.
Sometimes she sings for me in a high, sad voice while she works:
“Mother, oh why did you leave me alone,
No one to comfort, no friends and no home?
Dark is the night, when the storm rages wild, God pity Bessie, the drunkard’s lone child…”
Nana declined to use the new washer and dryer my parents purchased for the family home, preferring the old wringer washer, and to hang the clothes outside, or in the cellar in the winter, or on a rainy day. She emerged onto the concrete stairs through the cellar screen door, and I followed. With her wringer-wrung wash in a vinyl-lined bushel basket hoisted onto her right hip, my slender, petite Nana climbed with strength and sure-footed determination.
Up in our lush backyard, I handed wooden clothespins to her. Some were spring-hinged, and some resembled slender gingerbread people. She held a few extra clothespins between her lips as she hung the clothes. I copied her, holding one in my mouth, tasting and smelling the smooth wooden pin. Nana reached up to hang shirts, my playwear and towels on the plastic revolving umbrella lines. On heavy wash days, Granddaddy’s work clothes were hung on long rope fixed between two Pin Oaks. Here, Nana was far from the tarry, sooty air of her New York apartment roof, where clotheslines swayed between two metal poles. She was farther still from her country home, where she had learned these washday skills from her mother.
Nana saved soap when it shrank to impractical size; a frugal measure from her farm upbringing. She showed me the can where she collected the fragrant bits, “You can make new soap with it.” She directed me to the patio for water play, and put on my clear plastic bib apron. Filtered light from the Pin Oaks. The soft summer breeze. I squished together the malleable white pieces to form bath soap for Betsy, and spoke to my baby in motherly tones. I recall the refreshing tepid water, and the wet smoosh of soap, bathing baby dolls in their pink bassinette on a summer afternoon.
The rich aroma tempted me to the kitchen. Nana’s soup stock—made from short ribs, tomatoes, chopped carrots and cabbage--steamed and bubbled. The heavy white pot on the back burner of the white enamel stove simmered our supper. What will we do next? There was always a fun project with Nana. "We're going to make noodles!" She took out two aprons from the bottom drawer. First, she donned her cotton floral bib apron, one of several in her collection, then she placed a clear plastic ruffled bib apron, painted with the image of a girl wearing the same apron, over my head, freeing the ringlets down my back. I was up to the task.
Nana poured white flour from a tin measuring cup into a mound directly onto the soft canvas cloth which covered the red and white checked pattern on the chrome kitchen table. She quickly made a hole in the flour with her knuckles, then broke in two yellow egg yolks, leaving the white part in the shell, and sprinkled in salt from the Morton's box she kept above the stove. She gently mixed the yolks into the flour with a wooden spoon, and added a bit of water. Nana kneaded the dough ball, and let me form a tiny one with her. Petite, but with strong arms and hands, Nana worked the wooden rolling pin with the red striped handles. She leaned into the table, pushing and flattening the soft dough. After slicing the dough into narrow strips with a small knife, she gently hung the noodles, one by one, on the backs of the kitchen chairs to dry. I was fascinated! When the noodles were still a little moist, she placed them in the pot of simmering soup. Nana served mine with a little ketsup, and I can't recall a more flavorful soup!
About the Author: Mary Ellen has been writing non-fiction and poetry most of her life. Her gardening prose has appeared in local papers, and she has self-published a colorful gardening newsletter. She writes memoir and mixed-genre pieces depicting her adoptive '50' and '60's Air Force childhood, the search and reunion with her birth mother, professional gardening career, the brain hemorrhage at 58 which nearly took her life, and her journey to recovery. She and her husband are presently relocating from Pennsylvania to Sarasota, FL with their Bijon, Willis.