Laundry Day

At my old house, I hung the laundry on the roof. I had a huge roof with nothing between it and the sun. In the summer the first things I hung up were almost dry by the time I finished hanging out the load. I had to do the laundry while being closely observed by the teenagers at the private boys’ school, of course, and that was never particularly fun, but I developed a system of hanging big blankets up first along the “spare” line and then doing my other work behind them. This didn’t quite conceal my underthings, so I had to hang them under other articles of clothing. It all worked out in the end.

Now at my new house the laundry situation is a bit different. I’m sure they’d be happy to let me hang my laundry up on the roof, but the thought of having to ask for permission every time I wash something is daunting. Plus I’m not entirely convinced that they would let me just go up and hang out my laundry; I suspect I’d have to sit and have several cups of tea along the way, and that in fact they might even try to convince me to let one of the little girls do the work for me. I’m a fan of handling my own underthings and after handwashing an entire load of clothes I’m usually far too sweaty and tired for visiting. Laundry is a workout when it’s by hand!

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So I’ve been borrowing the tiny line stretching between the little apartment next door and the compound’s back wall. This puts me in close range to the chickens, who are tethered by the ankle as they peck around in the dirt. I’m not completely convinced their tethers are short enough or even that reliable, so I keep an eye on them while I work. The good news is that this area is actually totally shady, so I don’t have to burn while hanging out the laundry. And the air is so dry that it only adds a few extra minutes to the drying time.

The line stretches across the back sidewalk in the compound, though, so I can’t hang underthings out here at all. It’s why I had to go buy a drying rack — and I quickly learned that the drying rack can’t be positioned anywhere near an open window, because it’s fascinating to a whole new crop of teenage boys on this side of town. And the line is confined by the small space back here, so I find myself doing more frequent mini-loads than the giant once-a-week washings I’d prefer. And I have to check before I start washing to make sure there isn’t already laundry hung out. That’s the good part of being an extremely lazy American, in this context: if I sleep in until the chickens wake me up, it’s guaranteed that everybody else’s laundry will already be done and on the line. And if it isn’t, it can be my turn. Works out perfectly.

So I’m only hanging bedsheets and a pair of jeans today. I take more time than it needs, stretching the bedsheets out and smoothing them to paper-flatness. They’ll dry stiff, like cardboard, but with a little shaking they’ll soften up and they will smell like nothing else. I can say with absolute certainty that the appliance that has most improved the life of the average American is the dryer, but in fact bedding that’s hung out on a sunny, dry day smells heavenly. Even if it dried near chickens!

As soon as I hang up the jeans, they begin pouring water like a faucet. They always do this. Fleece is even worse. They’re almost too heavy to manually wring out, so I’ve found the best way is to do my best in the washtub, and then hang them on the line and wring them there, bit by bit. It’s almost like milking a cow. I’m sure it looks ridiculous, but it’s all I can think to do.

So I’m standing there, milking my pants, when one of my sheets is gathered up at the corner by a gnarled old hand. At the same time, a shaky old voice barks, “Hey! You!”

I peek around the jeans and see Um Jameel’s mother-in-law peeking back at me. She and her husband live in a one-bedroom apartment that shares a wall with mine, forming the other leg of the “l” of the house. Many houses are built like this, including the “main” house as well as a starter home for the oldest son (which is my apartment) and a retirement facility for the father’s parents. I think it’s a perfect combination of privacy and making elder care easier. I’m pretty sure Um Jameel does most of the cooking for this couple now, sending food down on a tray the same way she occasionally sends me food. But they don’t live in her space. It’s a nice arrangement.

“You!” the Hajja says again. I’m not sure what to do. In fact I have not technically been introduced to this woman. I suspected they weren’t entirely happy about having an American move into the compound because nobody’s ever suggested that I stop by. They’ve never been upstairs when I was there. For the first time, looking at that truly gnarled hand, I think maybe this has more to do with mobility than it does with me. But that doesn’t make this particular situation easier, because I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to introduce myself, or whether I’ve somehow erred and taken up the laundry line when it wasn’t my turn. So I say something utterly unintelligent. Something like “Uh…”

Fortunately, the Hajja isn’t actually waiting for me to reply. She leans a little and peers at me myopically, and then seems satisfied and says “Go get your mother. I’m out of tea, and the old man would like to speak to her too.”

This is one of those moments when you think of the perfect, facile replies afterwards. When, in a book, the heroine would politely explain that there’s been a mixup, and that Grandmother has made a mistake, but that of course one would be happy to help… But when you’re actually there, in the moment, you end up saying something again more like “Uh…”

The Hajja lifts her gnarled hand up and pokes my bicep, hard. “Go,” she says again. “We want tea. And your mother. Have your mother bring the tea.”

I take a step backwards, but she doesn’t move. She stands there, looking at me with the calm assurance that she will be obeyed. Whichever grandchild she thinks I am, she has no doubt that I understand the pecking order here.

I shrug and put my clothespins down on the ground before taking a few more steps backwards and then half-running up the stairs to Um Jameel’s. When I bang on the door, one of the older daughters opens it and invites me in graciously. “Thanks,” I say, trying to arrange the past-tense grammar necessary here in my head. “But the lady, the grandmother, says for your mother to bring her tea.”

“What, my grandmother?” the daughter asks. She looks blank for a second and then bursts into laughter so violent she eventually has to sit down. All her sisters and their mother stop their various chores and gather around to hear the funny news, and she finally manages to choke out, “Grandmother sent the American to get tea!”

Um Jameel pushes me into the corner and presses a cup of tea into my hand as she apologizes. “I’m sorry, I’ve told her not to bother you,” she begins. “I’ll talk to her again…”

“No, no, it’s okay, it’s really okay,” I assure her. “In fact, I’m pretty sure she thought I was one of you, she said ‘get your mother’ just like that.”

The laughter stops abruptly and they all look at me. I try to picture what they see: my uncovered hair, sweaty and flyaway after my morning of mopping and laundry. My arms, bare to well above the elbow, in the t-shirt with the college logo on it. My denim pants and my feet in ugly sandals like a man’s. I look about as unlike one of them as it would be possible for me to look… if one could, in fact, see.

They all melt into mad laughter again, eight laughing women’s voices. “Grandmother thought the American was one of us!” someone yells, and they all whoop once again.

Suddenly a youngish daughter appears with a tray of tea… and hands it to me. “Here you go, sister!” she says, brightly. “Go take that to Grandmother!”

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