Life in the Pedestrian Lane

Obsession comes out in the wash

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

Has something your mother taught you stayed with you so clearly that you have become obsessive about it? We all remember to wear clean underwear in case we’re in an accident, and not to run with pointy sticks, lest we fall and put an eye out. Many of us still don’t swim until an hour after eating and we always eat our carrots so we can see in the dark.

But most of the things Mom used to warn about have been proven false by new science. For instance, how many people have you seen whose face has frozen into an ugly caricature from making faces at their siblings? But some lessons hang around forever, making our lives a little less easy. For me it is doing the laundry.

I grew up before automatic washers. Mom had to haul out the rinse tubs and set them up beside the wringer washer she wheeled out of a corner in the back room and then fill all with a hose run from the faucets in the kitchen sink.

This format required careful sorting of the clothes, both for color and degree of “dirty” to take advantage of the hottest and cleanest water. In most households the sort was “white,” “light,” “colored” and “work”; but for my mother sorting was a religious experience.

The sheets were first into the washer. In those days sheets were white, so that presented no problem. After the sheets came white shirts and blouses and dish towels, then underwear, nearly always white, or ecru, which didn’t count as a color. Bath towels, which may have been lightly colored, but were basically clean, were next. Then the pastels, which, when I was growing up, came in abundance: pale yellows, blues, greens, maybe a lavender, and the ever-present pink.

After the pastels, the quandary began. My mother didn’t sort just for colored, she sorted colors, bright blues in one pile, dark greens in another. Red was anathema, as it was never colorfast no matter how many times it was washed, so anything red went into the washer just before the jeans and overalls. My brother and dad wore many pairs of jeans with reddish pocket linings.

I can hear everyone saying, so what’s the big deal? In today’s world, we can wash a load anytime we want to, and most fabrics and dyes are colorfast. Laundry is easy as pie (whoever made up that analogy obviously never made a pie). Forget it! I STILL sort for colors, and if I don’t have a load of that color, I don’t wash it until I do. That, too, is a throwback to the good old days. The idea of wasting a wash load for only one or two things gives me heartburn.

I’ve gone weeks not able to wear a certain sweatshirt or slacks because they are a unique color. Sometimes I have to give up and throw them in with something close: lilac in with gray for instance. Then I agonize for the entire half hour the load takes to wash, imagining all sorts of mayhem going on inside the washer that will lay waste to my favorite garments.

And don’t even mention different fabrics. Early in my life as a homemaker, synthetic materials were less robust than now. They picked up color from whatever they were washed with, and in the case of whites, they quickly yellowed from bleach and water impurities. My sister, the nurse, put her no-iron uniforms through a tub of Rit color remover every so often so she’d sparkle like “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse“ in her all-white getup. Lucky for her that nurses these days wear whatever they want. We’re all lucky that synthetic fabrics have become very durable and laundry friendly.

However, my quandary still looms. Can I wash jeans and dark slacks together? Does a tartan plaid go with the greens or the reds? And what about stripes and checks? Colored or white? Can I put a green bath towel in with the blue sheets, and will red be OK with florescent pink? I have made a few inroads into my obsession. I have been known to toss a towel in with the sheets and the washer didn’t explode. I even washed a pair of dark socks with the khaki pants one time by accident; they were caught in the pants legs. Neither the socks nor the pants suffered any bad repercussions.

And I know my mom is looking down, laughing her head off. One of the more important things she taught me was to recognize the absurdity of a situation, and not to be afraid to laugh at myself. It brings things into perspective, she said. So I’m laughing, but I’m still not putting my red sweatshirt into the washer with my bright blue slacks.

Virginia Walters is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.

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