When the machine arrived

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It was the 1960’s. Mother’s cream and green electric washing machine replete with pump, agitator, and safety wringer took pride of place in the wash-house beside the old copper.  The mastermind behind this locally produced electric washing machine was an Estonian migrant Karl Pallo.  The washing machine bore his name.  Mother marvelled at the agitator that would replace her hands to rub and rinse and rid the clothes of grime.  Before the Pallo arrived in our lives, she boiled the bed sheets in the copper. A small fire would be lit beneath to warm the water.  A stick from the woodshed, bleached and boiled over the years, would stir, the way this new modern machine would now do automatically.  If there was no time for a fire, or to boil, Mother would hand wash.  She would hold a bar of bright yellow Sunlight soap and press the fabric of Father’s work shirts or trousers, firmly against the glass washboard, rubbing, scrubbing.  Sometimes this was done before clothes were placed to boil in the copper. Her biceps were legendary. Not just from scrubbing clothes, but hand beating butter and sugar for the light sponges she made and cooked in the Coal Range.  Hauling the coal bucket from the shed, chopping the kindling. She had no need of a gym membership and no time for Yoga.

The copper was legendary for more than just the washing.  It was used to cook the Christmas ham in the early years of my childhood.  Family lore has it, that one year, Father’s stepfather came to stay, and he tipped the boot polish (which was kept on top of the copper), into the copper when the ham was cooking.  It seems the polish formed a film on top of the water, and the ham that year was the best ham ever.  I cannot confirm or deny this as I do not remember the ham, but it obviously did us all no harm, as there were no aftereffects.

Now the machine had arrived, the cream and green Pallo.  Mother was wondering what she would do on a Monday.  But there was still the chore of lifting the clothes from the agitated waters, and hauling the bed sheets, heavy with soap and water, into one of the twin stone tubs to rinse.   Then there was the wringer.  This was attached to the washing machine and meant two rollers would press the water from the washing.  You had to be careful.  Stories abounded of young girls with long hair who had become entangled in the wringer rollers.  No one I knew, knew anyone to whom this had happened, but we heard about it. Whole arms could be dragged through the rollers, bones crushed, perhaps even necks wrung.  And there was still the mammoth task of carrying the heavy bed sheets, still reasonably dense with water, despite the wringer, and throwing them across the rotary clothesline under the plum tree.

Mother would stop for a ciggie, draw in deeply, inhale, and then blow the smoke back out energised by the nicotine, ready for the next stage.  The sheets would hang double over the line and the line would rotate if there was a decent breeze. Usually, the scorching summer sun was enough.  But in winter, a breeze was needed to spin the Rotary clothesline and dry the washing.

Years later, when Mother had died, and Father was living alone and doing his own washing, every Monday, we would visit with our children.  He was a man of singular routine. His day consisted of a walk to the rubbity-dub which opened at eleven o’clock on the dot.  Our two sons would walk with him through the school path, under the bluegum tree, past the Holy Trinity Church, down the road, past what was the old cinema, and he would buy them chewing gum and let them play at the playground, just close to the pub.  We would pick up the children as soon as the pub opened.  He would eat a half roast every day at the pub and return home for a nap and then back to the pub at 3.00 pm for another round.  This was primarily for the company by now.  A table of old war veterans who sat and talked.  Father was the listener.  He would sip his flat tap beer from the jug and nod and occasionally comment, and then head home.  If we were staying on holiday, he would arrive home to a cooked meal and if he were alone, he would open a tin of creamed corn, unheated to eat.

Mondays, Father would continue with Mother’s washing routine.  He would grab a handful of soap powder. A generous handful, never measured, and toss it into the agitating water.  Then he would call out to see if we had any washing we wanted done.  Hubby in those days, when our boys were young, had expensive linen shirts and learned to hide his good laundry and toss his boxer shirts for his father-in-law to wash.  We would discreetly hand wash anything that might not withstand Father’s washing routine.  The soapy water would swish and swash as Father’s sheets swirled.  Our lads would stand, mesmerised by the movement of the agitator which by now (after over 30 years), was held in place by a lump of 4 x 2.  Father had been a builder and he knew what to do with a piece of 4 x 2.   Then the sheets would go through the wringer, and this was even more fascinating to our young lads who would stand on the other side of the wringer, ready to receive the yards of sheeting being fed through.  By this stage, the wringers had bowed, and the sheets were almost as wet after going through the wringer as they had been before. There would be just the once rinse and not two like Mother always did.  Thus, the sheets would hang, stiff as boards, soap encrusted, whiter than white, mostly soap powder, drying in the scorching summer sun.  

It was with a sense of sadness that we sold the house with the washing machine still in the wash-house and the copper still in situ, when Father passed away.  I marvel now at my own built-in laundry (under the staircase), with front loading washing machine and dryer, automatic settings, and barely a bicep required. I go to body tone classes to earn my biceps and stretch my fascia.  Mother had no need of such classes.  Her body was always moving. She beat eggs by hand, chopped firewood, hauled coal, washed, waxed, and polished the linoleum, and rewarded herself on a Saturday with a 2/6d cake of fruit and nut chocolate, one leg under her bum, perched on a chair, eating chocolate, and doing the cryptic crossword.  Better than Yoga really.

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