Soundings: A Meditation on the Clothesline

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

This began with talk of clotheslines and memories of things now scarce — like doctors’ house calls, ironing boards and pay phones. And how you positioned the sheets on the outside lines, to shield your undergarments and holey dungarees from the neighbors’ eyes. And how you hung shirts and blouses upside down — arms flailing like streamers — so those clothespin puckers left nipples on shirttails, not shoulders.  


Mc2 3853Photo by Matt Cashore '94


The conversation brought back images of clothes and sheets, blankets and towels swaying in spring and summer breezes, flapping gently in the sun. And I remembered then, too, how good the cleanliness smelled. It was the scent of sunlight and sky-born wind. And the cloud-soft caress against nose and cheek when I’d press them to my face.  


Back then we let wind and solar power do their work. Back when we had time. And patience.

The sensual graces of those days are now lost in the thrumming, whirring machines that oven-dry our clothes these days, and the false fragrances of chemical odors. Convenience has its costs.


So, too, decorum. We moved across town when I was 12, and my mother stopped hanging clothes on a line. “It wouldn’t be proper here,” she explained. “The neighbors wouldn’t approve.”


In the old house we had time to sit on the porch each summer evening, the melodious sounds of adults talking in those soft Louisiana voices. Those stories and gossip provided the news and entertainment in the hush of twilight.


We had sidewalks then. And neighbors out strolling. They wouldn’t just slip past with a quick wave of the hand, the light toss of “hello” or “evenin’.” They’d stop and visit awhile. It was cooler outside, in the days before air conditioning kept us indoors, watching TV instead of experiencing the world going by, the sun setting, the lightning bugs coming out, the first stars peeking out of the sky. “Star light, star bright, first star . . .” Maybe kick-the-can.


We laugh now about the times when the “fog truck” came, spewing clouds of toxic vapor, and how we’d follow on our bikes, immersed in the dense cloud of DDT. Our parents’ only caution was to be careful we didn’t ride right into the truck if it stopped when we couldn’t see it for the thickness of its poison gas. It was a simpler time.


I hardly see paper boys anymore. But they were once ubiquitous and regular. A morning and evening paper. Thrown porch-ward from a bike sailing past. It was a boy’s first job, first rung in a ladder of responsibility. Then a girl’s job, too, before the news business got bad and kids found other ways to make a little money.


Milkmen, too, have become obsolete. When I was a kid, our milk was delivered door to door. The milk and cream came in thick glass bottles. The milkman carried a little wire caddy and brought the goods from his truck to our backdoor. We had the empties washed and waiting for him, along with the slip of paper with tomorrow’s order.  


A friend remembers a time in South Bend when there were street vendors selling fruit and vegetables, pushing wooden carts down the street, offering their produce door to door. In my hometown Service Drug Store used to deliver medicine right to our house. Mister Alums dropped off dry cleaning once a week, my father’s white shirts wrapped in clear plastic. (My mother hated to iron.) 


I remember back when “the junk man” came down the street regularly in a beat-up old truck, buying and selling scrap, offering to haul away broken chairs and car parts and pipes, peddling old tools, sheets of corrugated tin and plywood in return. There was an old guy walking around with a bucket of liquid-thin concrete asking if he could patch your sidewalk or driveway cracks. My mom said yes out of charity one time, but the cement was so soupy it just ran away. On street corners back then were country folk selling mayhaws, Ruston peaches, pecans and sassafras. Mistletoe at Christmastime. 


The mail still gets delivered by humans, but with information coming at us from all directions, it’s easy to imagine a day when that will end. Back when my family subscribed to a half-dozen magazines, I’d keep an eye out for the mailman. He used to carry a satchel over his shoulder and walk door to door, avoiding dogs and sprinklers. I remember as a boy those times my mom would give me a glass of cool water for the mailman and have me watch out the window for him, give him a drink on a hot summer day. 


Memory tells me those were more human times. People came to visit, dropping in unannounced. I wasn’t always glad to see those uninvited guests, especially when they arrived just prior to dinnertime or when I was heading out to play. And on Sunday afternoons, once or twice a month, my family went visiting, too, going to see the old ladies and widows who had been my grandmother’s friends.


I remember long afternoons trapped in old-lady houses, the long and boring conversations, the abundance of fragile knickknacks everywhere, the flowery fragrances and uncomfortable furniture. It was torture on a little boy, agony on an adolescent. It made a lasting impression on me. And over the years I’ve wondered how these social calls shaped my character, influenced my behavior, affected my own inclination to spread goodwill to the lonely.


I still don’t have a happy answer. No evidence suggests an enduring positive effect on me.


But I do occasionally see clothes and sheets and towels hanging from the line when I drive out in the country. I do not think less of the people who do that. I envy them the peaceful, quiet pleasure of hanging clothes in the sunshine outdoors and the sensual gratification of breeze-dried, sun-kissed fabric against the skin. And then I will think back and remember. And later I’ll sit alone and ride my thoughts away. I could write an essay on the joys of playing with clothespins, but you probably don’t have time for that.  


Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.