A shaft of blinding sunshine blazed through our farmhouse’s back-door window and cascaded down the basement steps. The sunlight felt warm and glowed against the shadowed area under the steps. Mom was outside hanging a load of freshly washed sheets. I loved playing in the basement when Mom was doing the laundry, but I didn’t go outside with her when it was as cold as today.
My new bike was in the basement until the weather improved and our muddy yard dried up. I loved my bike. It was half as big as the bikes my older brothers and sisters rode, and had training wheels to keep me upright. Slowly peddling around the perimeter of the basement, I rode past the clothes chute with the bedsprings under it to catch whatever was thrown down, past the furnace and oil tank, under the high windows that let in dim light, beside canning shelves filled with good things to eat, under the steps where bushel baskets of newspaper-wrapped apples were stored during the winter.
Swerving around the small, wooden-walled toilet enclosure, I stopped next to the washing machine. Mom was back in the basement putting in a new load. Noticing that my bike was between her and the stairs. She suggested, “You should park your bike next to the clothes chute so I don’t have to walk around it.” Grasping the bike’s handlebars, I walked it forward a few feet.
Eager not to miss anything, I returned to stand next to Mom. She was putting soiled clothing into the sudsy water in the washing machine. Its motor hummed happily as a paddle swished the water back and forth. After a while Mom switched on the wringers. Two wooden rolling pin-like cylinders, positioned parallelly one on top of the other began to spin. Mom unnecessarily warned, “Don’t try to help me. The wringer is dangerous.”
Reaching into the sudsy water, Mom fished out a shirt and carefully fed it to the turning rollers. The rollers sucked in the wet fabric, squishing it flat, making the water in it spill back into the washer. Mom guided the shirt into a tub of clean water. All the rest of the clothing in the machine followed. One rinse wasn’t enough. After a quick swish in the fresh water, the clothing went through the wringer into a second tub of clear water. Finally, all the washed things went through the wringer one last time into a basket to be taken outside and hung on the clothes line to dry.
When Mom went outside to hang that basket of clothing, I resumed riding my bike around the basement. Two of my sisters appeared at the top of the steps with their dolls. As they walked down the steps, one doll, named Mary Baby, slipped out of the arm clutching her and tumbled to the bottom of the steps. Gasping, the doll’s keeper scooped her up. Cradling the doll in her arms, she exclaimed with horror, “Mary-Baby’s leg is broken!”
After some tears and comforting words from Mom, we stoically went back to playing with our dolls, incorporating real life circumstances into their imaginary world. We weren’t sure what doll nurses did for broken legs, but we did a lot of rocking and saying comforting things. Finding boxes for hospital beds, we put Mary Baby, Betty Baby and Kathy Baby to bed as we played doll hospital.
My memories of that day are clouded by how very young I was at the time, and the passage of over 65 years since. Something my niece posted in Facebook recently, dredged up this far away and dim happenstance.
Having moved her parents into assisted living, my niece was going through papers she’d found in her childhood home. To her delight she found a picture of Santa and a letter to him from her mother when she was in grade school. In her letter, my sister asked for a saxophone, a ball, storybook, a cleaning set, crayons and a new doll because her doll from last year had a broken leg. She signed the letter to Santa, “May God Bless you.”
Seeing the Santa letter was like receiving a long-distance call. A foggy memory of playing in the basement on laundry day came to mind, a sad thing happening, and then playing doll hospital with my big sisters.