Joyce Mason once lived in a neighborhood that enforced a residential code preventing her from hanging quilts out in the fresh air. More than simply taking away one of her childhood pleasures, she found that she could not accept giving up her personal freedom.
One glorious, spring morning, I draped my code-mandated, six-foot, cedar fence with blankets and quilts. In less than an hour, someone from the neighborhood wash brigade phoned from behind her required neutral-toned shutters to let me know that airing my laundry outside (even if it was clean) was a no-no. That night, I let my husband know that we had to jump our Orwellian dwelling. Not being allowed to freshen my bedding outdoors cut to the quick of a childhood memory.
Every Saturday, my mother made a list of chores to be done by those in the family old enough to pick up Tinker Toys or to diaper the current baby. The person to get first dibs was rotated from week to week. My brothers, sisters, and I made deals more complicated than the NFL draft. I would take on anyone’s dish-doing duties, give up my turn to sit in the front seat of our ’54 Chevy, promise away my share of Oreos for first choice. Always, after threadbare February had worn itself out, I chose to take out and bring in the laundry. I loved the smell of clean clothes in the galvanized tub that I lugged with an arched-back outdoors. I loved that hanging the wash wasn’t totally mindless work. Jeans, sheets, and towels couldn’t be hung in the middle of the line because they would drag on the ground. Reserving enough clothespins to dangle the socks required strategy.
Inside the house, I could hear cicadas, but when I got outside, I only found their emptied husks. I witnessed hyacinths and daffodils surrender their space to daisies and crayon-colored zinnias. Black city birds turquoised in the sunlight while wrens teeter-tottered their tails. Late summer clacked with jut-jointed insects begging for more warm days.
After my mother had her seventh child, my parents installed an electric dryer. For a few weeks, I continued to barter for my right to do the laundry, but I soon found the task brought no joy. Clothes from the dryer had no more character than cottage cheese. I carried them upstairs in white and dark batches, segregated as the churches in my town. I took my turn scouring worn linoleum and bathtub rings. Work was work. I couldn’t finagle the system to combine what had to be done with something pleasurable.
Today, my grandchildren visit me in rural Virginia in a home where what is in my legal space is for me to decide. From my kitchen, I can see rusting cars and a broken-windowed school bus sinking in the mud. I confess I don’t like the sight, but I maintain that what is in my neighbor’s space is not for me to dictate. To codify what meets the eye on private property seems as imposing as making women veil their faces.
Camelot for some may mean that they will never have to look out their windows and see hot pink shutters or billowing sheets on a summer day, but I plan to do what’s left of my happily-ever-aftering in a spot where I can unite body and soul with the half hitches of a clothesline knot.
Joyce Mason grew up in the Midwest—Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa—and she has lived many places since marrying a "tumbleweed." Ms. Mason left her home in Virginia about four years ago when her husband retired, but she returns periodically to visit her daughter and grandchildren who live there. She now makes her home in Cedar City, Utah.
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