Last Tuesday, as I fought the breeze to get the sheets hung thoroughly on the line, I compared my own easy, young adult life with the young adult years of my paternal grandmother Patricia Young Smith.
In 1955 Grandma started college in northern Minnesota as a newly divorced 23-year-old farmer's daughter with no marketable skills. What Grandma also did, however, was simultaneously and single-handedly raise three children who, when she began her studies, were ages 2, 3 and 4. Her elderly parents helped her buy a small house near the campus in Bemidji, and somehow Grandma found enough babysitters and burned enough midnight oil to complete her studies and keep the tiny house in order.
Grandma went on to complete her doctorate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and eventually moved to Lexington, Kentucky when she joined the English faculty of the University of Kentucky. She's retired now, and a few years ago wrote an essay about those years. Reading it I felt a profound debt of gratitude to my grandmother, who worked so hard in order to give her children a better start in life, and also to my great-grandparents, who sacrificed greatly to send their daughter to college with three toddlers in tow. They knew that an education was the only way out of poverty and social stigma for their daughter and their grandchildren, one of whom was my father.
For some reason I brought my copy of that essay, "Freeing Mother," with me to England, and I recently read it again. Grandma vividly describes that little house near campus, with one upstairs bedroom where all four residents slept, and tiny ground floor rooms kept warm by the stove and an oil-burning space heater. I read how Grandma lost everything in the divorce (though she said she gained everything by keeping custody of the children) and so scraped together a couch, a couple of little tables and a few beds and cribs. She built a bookcase out of boards and bricks and set her faithful old typewriter in the living room. But there was one thing Grandma did have--a wringer washer and an electric dryer, which even now she calls her one luxury.
"It seemed to heat itself up enough so it could work even in the cold. It was a great help to have these appliances. I know, because in earlier years I had done without them. Lots and lots of clothes had to be washed for those little ones--quite a lot of work even with the machines. The washing machine was white with red trim, and was filled and emptied with a pail. I would roll it over the threshold from the lean-to, a step up, to the kitchen sink. With a wringer washer, you filled once and washed the clothes in separate loads, working through whites to lights to dark colors. Anything extremely soiled, such as diapers, I had already prewashed by hand, and then washed in the machine. After being threaded through the wringer, one item at a time, clothes went into two galvanized washtubs set on chairs for two rinses, being wrung out again between the two. Then they were ready for the dryer, or, in some cases, the clothesline. If it was too cold to hang things outside, I hung them on lines in the back porch. Once the clothes were dry, they had to be sprinkled for ironing anywhere from a few hours to a day or two later. That, too, was a long and tedious job, requiring many hours, and, like washing, another of those household jobs which had to be done over again ever few days."
After reading those lines, I instantly thought of my griping over the simple task of hanging a few clothes on the radiator or on the line. I thought of how I was saving energy and also forcing myself to slow down and think while hanging out the clothes. And then I read Grandma's next line. She wasn't pitying herself at all.
"All this for me was liberation .... Painfully, over the years, I had come to realize what I had thrown away [by marrying young and refusing a college education]. This second chance was now mine, and I had a growing confidence in my own abilities to solve problems, trusting myself to succeed in this unorthodox project of earning a college degree while caring for and bringing up the children, and after that, supporting them. Autonomy itself made me feel wonderful--lonely, maybe, but with the means to work myself out of destructive situations."
A few hours after I hung out those sheets, they were dry. I took them off the line and fought to fold them neatly in the breeze, inhaling the sweet aroma of clean, sun-drenched linen. I imagined my grandmother doing the same thing half a century ago. She was younger than I am now, but a mother with a full load of responsibilities and an insatiable thirst for learning and betterment.
Suddenly, folding up those sheets seemed like a very easy task, indeed.
Excerpts from "Freeing Mother" © 2005 by Patricia Young Smith used by permission