Poem: Washerwomen, Blessings

Washerwomen, Blessings

by Deirdre Maultsaid

From This crisis, these blessings: essays by Deirdre Maultsaid (Trafford Publishing)
First appeared in Canadian Woman Studies, Vol. 22, Summer, 2003


I am a washerwoman standing on unstable ground.
I see all in its proper place: aquifer, granite, dust,
sideyard, water pump,
a basin full, my own brawny arms,
my washboard-abraded hands still wringing.
Work is its own reward.
Be careful: contemplation could bring grief.
The world is.
The world does not know me.


Ada Williams says of her work, “The summer I was 15, I went up to Halifax and earned a few dollars. I found a job doing housework, where I had to wash a huge pile of clothes every day while the mistress sat and watched me. I stood it for one week, and left. She refused to pay me anything and was very angry. I went down to the waterfront and got on Cat Weston’s vessel and started for home…I walked down home in the thick fog, and went in the house just as Papa was having his breakfast. ‘I had to come home, Papa’, I said. ‘The work was so hard and I was homesick.’ ‘Come in child. Come in,’ he said. ‘We mine as well starve together.’ (Beth Light & Joy Parr, Editors, Canadian Women on the Move, 1867-1920, New Hogtown Press, 1983).


In pioneer communities, washing clothes involved hauling water, a two day soak with vinegar or buttermilk to take out stains, rubbing the clothes vigorously on the washboard, boiling them and hanging them out to dry in all weather. Rumour has it that Frontiersmen took baths at the laundry and bathhouses, in the East Kootenay Mountains, in the early 1900’s, but would have to wait days for their clothes to dry. Women made their own lye out of wood ash and bones, or animal fat. Catherine Parr Trail, in The Backwoods of Canada said that the process of making soap was “mysterious” and a recipe that required a certain touch. How sweet the washerwoman with her Castile soap for the lace and her hard-working lye for the britches and rags and flannels.


Statistics Canada has a study, Households unpaid work: measurement and valuation. Laundry is subject to public scrutiny.


Last century, a bride was instructed in Mountain Life and Work to wash the clothes thus: “1. bild a fire in back yard to heat kettle of rain water. 2. set tubs so smoke won’t blow in eyes if wind is pert. 3. shave one hole cake soap in bilin water. 4. sort things, make three piles, one pile white, one cullord, one work britches and rags. 5. stur flour in cold water to smooth then thin down with bilin water. 6. rub dirty spots on bord, scrub hard,then bile. 7. rub cullord but don’t bile just rench and starch. 8. spred tee towels on grass; hang old rags on fence; pore rench water in flower bod; scrub porch with soapy water. 9. turn tubs upside down. 10. go put on clean dress, smooth hair with side combs, brew cup of tee, set and rest and rock a spell and count blessins.”


What layered meaning in layered aprons.


I perceive the world in its otherness,
its pulse, its it-ness,
its ellipses, waysides and vacancies,
broken shards and muscularity,
oh, its stomped thistles, its unrelenting waves of wheat,
its crammed up sweaty pioneer dread,
anguished tears in the outhouse.
What can I give?
I separate darks from whites.
I scour.


Henry David Thoreau, says in Walden “In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighbourhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”


6:06 a.m., after the first load is sloshing in the washer, I walk along the familiar short piece of road, past the usual sight of the two men who unplug, then warm up their truck before heading to their shift at the lumber mill, past the same trailers with the all-year Christmas lights (red and green only), the same piles of real firewood and old lumber (second choice firewood), past the same grime and unloved gravel (no matter how sideways I look through my own snow-covered lashes at the new drifts that soften the view along the road), while I hear the undernourished dogs barking from the ends of their taut ropes, and hear the trucks from Alaska and Prince Rupert idling at the brake check, and I see the truckers relieving themselves into the ravine, where they carve the same caked snow, and the same barnacles of old ice, and then, I walk until I come—oh, the teeth-grinding lack of possibilities—to the familiar cul-de-sac turnaround, with its same road-salt-sickened pine trees, (dry and forgotten and carport-threatening), the same tedium of scruffy volunteer rosehips in the ditches, the boring lack of wildlife, and the silence of God.


Female nature is a truth hiding its own invention. Women’s work is not natural, but becomes a burnt stew, a short walk on stolen time, a forgotten dishcloth on the clothesline.


Assemble a decoration, a tiara, a clothespin animal of words;
hang out a long line of white laundry.
Sweeten this scene.
Wring this out.
Judge the sloshing and sluicing before
it judges you.
Count blessins.


Think of all the pioneer girls I miss.
Think of how they please me with their frippery.
Don’t they make lace with such devotion?
Such white patterns
of closure and convergence and conformity.
Girls finish tasks; they have crafts and rituals that will not bend, will not break, that are doubled and comforting and encircling.
Inside out bags for the clothespegs
Lists of detergent, pitiless soap, bleach, cleaner.
May they clean away the anguish.
Think of all the girls who pass.
Hold onto the jump rope.
Hold onto the fringe of your friend’s skirt.
Hold onto the hair of that girl next to you in your naked dream.
The lace cannot comfort you,
only language,
only the protein of love,
only the horizon toward which you run, strong-thighed,
boots thrown down in a wet coulee, apron gone,
stockings discarded for a fox nest,
garter belt ripped off and still flying into the blue.

A pioneer trail.
Monday wash day.
Count Blessins.


The world does not know me.
No pine tree sympathizes,
its scent a purposeful balm.
I wash.
The clothes will flap in the breeze.
The sheets make a schooner on a bay of golden sheaves.
I see and walk on.


This is not my contemplation.
I do not spiritually
attune myself
to the irreducible
in each droplet of water.
The world is where I left it: clean, sullied,
with its tired cracked ice,
unblessed knuckles, random water sprays,
sometimes, sometimes footloose giddy grooming.

The thistles grow, the lace becomes yellowed, even if I do not reflect.
What do I know?
What do I know that I know?
Be careful of what I see in my knowing,
with its soured rationality,
deadened intuition.

How fragile are we, how will we endure, how storied and truthful is the world, is this drop of water.
Scoured is silence.
My soliloquy.


All washing is servile.
All reliance is slavery.
Is all suffused with Nature’s power?
Contemplation is a social practice that claims: God is here if we listen.
I hear the rustle as the fox sniffs the girl’s apron.
I hear the waves lapping.
Everything that rises.
All that knows.
I am all that knows.
Women are a sea of power,
not the long-suffering
points of power’s application
against us.
We are not the rags to be wrung.
Water, we rise.


Make my human experience break beyond my skin.
The world travels on its moist blue arc; the bay glows; the sheets flutter.
I inhale.
The girls have washed so many linens.
Make me thank them.
Bless their rough hands.

The End

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