I stand in front of the dryer, trying to find mates for the warm socks in my hand. I look up and see a picture of my mother (from the late 1970s if I had to guess, based on her haircut and her ugly wide-legged pants) doing laundry. I’ve framed it and placed it on the shelf where I can see her standing on a stoop, hanging clothes out on the line.
It was her favorite way to dry clothes, to see them whipping in whatever breeze could be found. At home, she had almost as many clotheslines as we had trees, it seemed like. I remember them winding in and around the birches. When I was very young and went out with her to bring in the clothes, if it was a good day I could see the sunlight filtering down through the canopy the leaves had made. If it was a very good day, I would find some blueberries just a little beyond the furthest clothesline, and I would pick enough for me so I wouldn’t have to share with my younger brother.
Hanging out the clothes was my favorite way to do laundry, too. I always thought the shirts smelled like sunshine. It was almost as if she had bottled up the summer and infused it into my shirts, so that when I got dressed in the morning and pulled my shirt down over my head, I could breathe deep and get a lungful of a Maine summer.
According to the calendar and the weather in Maine, she probably started hanging laundry out earlier in the season than she should have, and leaving it out longer in the fall than was prudent. I remember sometimes our shirts didn’t smell like summer; they didn’t smell at all, frozen stiff as the temperature dropped before the wind and winter sun could do their work.
I’m not sure who took the picture or why, but I’m glad I have it.
This year I’ll be the same age she was when she died. The longer she’s been gone, the more I find myself searching for what could possibly connect us. It’s hard to know for sure, since I’ve never had a conversation with her as an adult. Even though we both found our vocation in education, the life I’ve built seems very far removed from the small town in Southern Maine where she raised me. So I find connection in the small routines of my daily life. Every time I cook one of her recipes, or lose my temper at ridiculous drivers, or fold laundry as I look at her picture, I remember what it was like to be mothered by her. And instead of bringing the fierce pain it once did, now the memories bring peace.
Ruth M. Nichols
July 15, 1945 – April 9, 1991