Laundry Ballet

by Marjorie Simmins

Dancing colours: every week I see them – under clear skies or even in light rain – in every shade and shape imaginable. Sometimes static, sometimes manic, occasionally moving in a slow-motion ballet. I want to be a choreographer of this art and slip out of my perpetual state of dryer dependence and clothesline envy….

It’s Monday morning, the day I begin learning “outdoor clotheslines.” I am the sole student in the class that my friend and neighbour, Denise, will teach. She is an umpteenth-generation Nova Scotian, born and raised on the “French Shore” between Yarmouth and Digby. I am a transplanted Vancouverite. Today we both live in the village of D’Escousse, on Isle Madame, in Cape Breton.

It all began with a conversation over tea. Shyly, I shared my secret longing with my new Acadian friend. “Oh sure,” she said at first, “go ahead, use your clothesline.” She paused, then added, “And if I were you, I wouldn’t even worry about the laundry police.”

Laundry police?

“I’m kidding,” she laughed. “Sort of. Besides, it’s quite possible that the rules aren’t as strict here on Isle Madame as they are where I grew up.”


My friend chattered on, then stopped at the sight of my woebegone face. “It’s all that colour and movement that gets to you, isn’t it?” she said. “And the symmetry of the line, right?” I nodded, feeling slightly embarrassed. “You haven’t done this before, have you?”

Well yes, in a way. We did have an outdoor clothesline where I grew up at 43rd and Dunbar Street on the southwest side of Vancouver. I dimly remember sandy bathing suits and beach towels strung out on it – but not everyday clothes. Those languished down in our basement on the biggest wooden clotheshorse I’ve ever seen. A week’s laundry fit on that clotheshorse, but the clothes took forever to dry. Saturday night we washed blue jeans for Monday morning schoolwear.

A dryer was simply not in my family’s financial cards. To this day, I feel as wealthy as a Windsor when I use one.

“But what about sheets, bedspreads, blankets?” asked my friend, obviously at a loss trying to imagine how my family stayed even remotely clean using our curious indoor system.

Big stuff went on the indoor clotheslines, also in the basement. I explained how the ropes squared the area around the washing machine. Inside, it felt as though you were in a tent, and finding your way out through the folds could be a challenge.

“Indoor clotheslines?” Her furrowed brow suggested that such a method defeated the overall purpose. Outdoor fresh and all that. She was right. Technically clean, the clothes often continued to exude a vague whiff of eau de cellar.

“I have no idea,” I said. “And it wasn’t just my family. Hardly anyone I knew used an outdoor clothesline when I was a kid. You just never saw one.” Out of West Coast loyalty, I omitted the other, more likely explanation for Vancouver’s dearth of outdoor clotheslines – the rains do come.

“Listen, I would try the outdoor clothesline,” I said, “if I knew those damn rules you’re talking about.”

“Monday morning, first thing,” she replied.

So here we are. No birds singing; no birds are even awake. Regulation one: all laundry must be on the line by 10 a.m. Otherwise, “Well, sloven is a word that I’ve heard used,” says Denise.

We are in the laundry room on the second floor of the seaside house that my husband and I live in. To reach the clothesline, all I have to do is open a window; it stretches from the house to a tree a full 50 feet away. As we did in my childhood, I have a capacious wicker basket into which I’ve piled the clean washing. And I’ve remembered my friend’s stern reminder, too, that kitchen linens (dishcloths, tea towels, napkins and tablecloths) must be washed separately from personal articles (bath towels and facecloths).

I start with socks and underwear. These, as with all other items, must proceed from light to dark and from small to large. Denise takes me to task for my profligate use of clothes-pegs (no gales blowing this morning, after all) and I learn to space the pegs regularly, not merely when I feel the creative urge to snap one on the line.

As instructed, I fold each piece of laundry over the line, pull it taut and peg it and, within each category, spread out the most pleasing colour gradations. The toes on the socks must be pointed in the same direction. Jeans and pants must be pegged at their waistbands, shirts at their tails (to fasten them at their shoulders leaves unsightly tweak marks; not good form). Light items, such as sheets and pillowcases, go on the line last; quickly dried, they can be retrieved first.

By midmorning I’ve created my own fabric ballet. I am content. There’s only one other question on my mind: “Who are the laundry police?”

“Family,” says Denise. “When your surname matches the name of the place you live in, good luck avoiding the family laundry police. Neighbours, too. It’s a village thing.”

I try to imagine a Simminsville. In Canada, with the spelling of our surname, Simminsville would be a metropolis of 12 or so, pulled together from a 4,000-mile radius. Not much of a police force. I stick the general concept of villages, a complex reality I am slowly coming to understand.

“So the village makes the rules?”

“No, those seem to be universal across the Maritimes. Take a look around, you’ll see. By the way, great job for your first time. Next thing you know, we’ll be sewing quilts, baking bread….” She starts to laugh at her own joke until she catches the eager look on my face.

“No way, Marjorie.”

I’ve had a good day. The folded laundry smells wonderful – and I haven’t heard a single siren. But can I share two small secrets? Between you and me?

My arm is sore….from all the heave-hoing on the clothesline….and I still love my….dryer.


Copyright: Marjorie Simmins. First published in Canadian Living, May 2003.