Julie, my youngest daughter, runs in laughing and forgetting to close the front door.
“Nanny says you got lots of panties in the wash.” She skips around the table.
My husband has been unemployed. Money is tight. We don’t have a washer or dryer so my mother, who lives next door, has offered to help. She washes and hangs our clothes on the line and I let her, though it reminds me of being watched as a child. I am shocked that she discussed my underwear with my eight year old.
Julie continues, “She wants to know what you’ve been doing. Seven pairs! Mom! That’s a lot!”
“Really? I wouldn’t know. I don’t count my underwear.”
I speak these words to my daughter, knowing the conversation is really between me and my mother. Julie shrugs and runs back outside to play.
I think about laundry day when I was a child, my mother in the kitchen sorting whites with whites, darks with darks, the muddiest and dirtiest together. Our underwear could land in any heap, depending on what the crotch looked like. Mother carefully inspected every pair, determining its rightful place. I feared the rounded womanly body of the washing machine with the wringers on top: the mouth of a hungry monster waiting to be fed, demanding, prying, never satisfied—like my mother.
She would fill a galvanized tub with bucket after bucket of rain water collected in metal barrels lining the back of our house. I’d watch her send our clothing through the wringers. She’d let them drop into the tub of rinse water, swish them around until they took shape then feed them back through the wringers. She would grip those clothes with both hands and shake them hard before dropping them into the laundry basket, as if trying to shake out the truth.
Mother issued warnings of what happened to children who didn’t listen. She said if our fingers got caught in the wringers our arm would be pulled in. She told us bad things happened to children who touched things they weren’t supposed to touch. She had a long list: the stove, knives, razor blades, hot mugs of tea, stuff in stores, but most of all our private parts, or the private parts of other people.
I wasn’t sure what she looked for in the crotch of our underwear or if she could tell what we’d done or hadn’t done, just as I wasn’t sure if the wringers would stop at the shoulder, or if our whole body could be pulled in. Our clothes came out hard, crushed, and wrinkled. I wondered if a person could come out like they did on the Bugs Bunny Show, flattened.
I stand now at my window, watching my mother pin dresses, towels, socks and panties on the line. She’s never liked the dryer my father bought for her. She complained that it doesn’t make the clothes smell as good as fresh air, that it uses too much electricity, so she draped a cloth over it and uses it as a plant stand. It was something my parents would fight about when they couldn’t find any other reason. With so many environmental concerns these days, lots of people would be on my Mother’s side, but in the 1970s she seemed simply stubborn and resistant to change.
“At least get a pulley line,” my father had said.
Her clotheslines still make the backyard an obstacle course: lines stretching from tree to tree, tree to pole, pole to pole. You have to be careful when walking, the place is a minefield. Mother has held firm all these years, stuck to her ways and those of her mother before her.
I wonder when her counting of underwear began. Was it also something her mother would do? In my early years she bought me those panties with the days of the week embroidered on a little lacy patch on the upper left-hand corner. How difficult it was to keep them straight! I could no longer pull on any pair. It didn’t seem right to wear the name of a day when it wasn’t that day. Was this my mother’s way of keeping tabs on me? And what on earth did she think during my teen years when I stopped wearing anything at all under my jeans? I haven’t asked any of these questions and neither has she.
Now I watch her lift a hand toward the clothesline, one finger extended, counting. I imagine what she must be saying: “One, two, three… My God, six pairs. No friggin’ need of that!”
Last Christmas she gave me the typical new package of panties. I hand-washed them and hung them in my shower to dry so they wouldn’t freeze stiff on the clothesline. I wasn’t surprised to receive panicked phone call: “Where are your new underwear? They’re not in the wash!” I smiled. She feared I’d gone all wild again.
That evening, after watching my mother hang all the clothes, I come up with a plan. I go through my underwear drawer and pull out all my panties. With a black permanent marker I draw large numbers on each pair—just like the days of the week from my childhood—and put them back in the drawer. I will wear them in order. She will have to say something and I have my answer ready: “All the easier for you to count.”
The next laundry day, Julie comes running into the house. “Nanny asked why you have numbers on your panties.”
“Really?” I smirk.
“Why do you, Mommy?”
“I’m playing a game with Nanny. I want to see if she’ll say something to me about it.”
“Silly,” she says and runs back outside.
When I go across the road to bring home my dry laundry, my mother says nothing about the numbers on my panties. I say nothing either and I know my young daughter is right. This is silly but I can’t break through that wall of protection I built as a child, the wall that keeps me safe from my mother’s criticism, her constant counting.
I go home to greet Julie from her day at school. We will talk about all the things we have done today.