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April 18, 2013

There’s something about seeing a clothesline that makes me feel really good. I don’t think I have anything but happy associations with that homely object, once ubiquitous throughout the rural and suburban South, but now almost nonexistent. To me, they are a token of childhood and summer days and the smell of sheets fresh off the line, all crisp and scratchy.


And they remind me of my mother when she was young and vital. Of course she got a clothes dryer in her later years—who didn’t?–and so the times I remember her being at the clothesline, arms in the air, mouth full of clothes pins, she was beautiful and young and strong. I took her youth and beauty and strength for granted, indeed, considered her pretty old and far beyond the pleasures of childhood.


But I know she did find a lot of childish pleasures in those years. She was a fast runner and loved to race with me. It seems it got harder and harder to win as we both grew older. Just seeing her children and their friends run through the flapping sheets, playing hide-and-seek surely brought her pleasure, for I’m sure she played the same games as a child. It was always thrilling to run out to the clothesline to gather in the nearly-dry laundry as the thunder growled and the skies darkened and the big, fat, solitary raindrops began their dusty, wet dance. The minute the clouds rolled in, we all would eye the sky carefully, and if the wind picked up and the air grew menacing, we all, as a family, dashed to the back yard, laughing, breathless, and gathered all that damp, white, clean laundry, smelling like sunshine, and carried it into the house feeling like heroes. Sometimes we spread things out over the furniture to dry in the house; sometimes we merely waited for the day to lighten again so she (never we) could go hang it back out again.


Clotheslines were once in everyone’s yard. As children, we used to take sheets and blankets out on summer nights, pin them up over the lines, and make tents, and inside them we would snug down with more quilts and sleeping bags and pillows and flashlights and a copious supply of potato chips and cookies. There we would tell stories, sing, eat, and play games until the crickets lulled us to sleep. Many times we would raid the neighbor kids who also were camping out under the clotheslines, and suffer through their raids. We never got much sleep, and we were always a little damp from dew, groggy, and itchy the next day because we had rolled in the grass, sweated, and sometimes got into chiggers.


I love the smell of fresh laundry dried outside, and I still hang mine out every chance I get. Right now the white sheets are dancing in the wind, and I can actually see them growing whiter under the April sun. Chlorine bleach actually yellows things over time, but sun restores whiteness, and the smell of sunshine certainly beats that of Clorox. Oddly, my children don’t like the smell of sheets dried outside. Once, when Mary Elizabeth was in middle school, I held a pillowcase up to her nose and said, “Oh, honey! Just smell this!” and she turned away, saying, “Ugh! I hate that! It smells like boys that have been playing outside all day!” I was astonished. How could you not love the smell of boys that have been playing outside all day? Let alone clean sheets that reek of sunshine. I mentioned this to my friend Delores the other day, and she said she had just about the same conversation with her grown daughter recently.


Despite the distaste the younger generations show for line-dried laundry, I hope the custom is not a dead one, and I can only hope that the energy-conscious kids of today and tomorrow will embrace it. I don’t have a lot of hope, though. It seems that everyone recycles, but I see few clotheslines in the suburban landscape these days, despite that fact that clothes dryers are huge energy hogs, and heat up the house to boot. But sadly, they are out of favor because there’s something about them that seems to shout out: “Low class! Ignorant!” A friend my age came to see me not long ago, and when she saw my underwear swinging in the wind, she commented, “Oh, Deborah! That isn’t your laundry hanging out on the line, is it?” Clearly, she was embarrassed for me, redneck that I have proven to be.


I hope she gets over that, because if she comes to spend the night with me, she’s going to be sleeping on sheets that are stiff with wind, smelling of sunshine and pollen. And I want her, and everyone else, to find it as soothing as I do.




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  1. Rebecca permalink

    I love clothes that are fresh-air-dried, and if it’s happened outdoors, then that’s better still. But unfortunately, I think the disappearance of clothes-lines in most backyards of the suburbs is due to ordinances against them.

    Sad, isn’t it? In this day and age of global warming and concern for environmental protection, clothes-lines are often nonetheless “illegal.”

    Beautiful memories, Deborah. I’m so glad you can (and do) still hang all your things out to dry!

  2. Nancy permalink

    Deborah, you have inspired me to reinstate my now overly shaded line in a new sunny location ……I Love the smell and feel of sun dried clothing also! Thank-you!

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