This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes

by Barbara Pierce

From the Editor: The following article appeared in Remember to Feed the Kittens, the sixteenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with Dr. Maurer's introduction:

As regular Kernel Book readers know, Barbara Pierce is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio, the mother of three grown children, the wife of a college English professor, an accomplished homemaker, and the writer of delightful stories that sparkle with wit and wisdom. Her current offering is no exception. Here is what she has to say:

Do you recall the children's song called, I seem to remember, "This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes"? In successive verses singers work their way through the days of the week demonstrating with motions the way we wash our clothes, iron our clothes, mend our clothes, sweep the floor, and bake the bread.

With the ironing board and the broom nearly extinct today and the bread machine creating most of the fresh bread in modern homes, perhaps children no longer take delight in singing this little tune. On the other hand, I had very little idea of what a wash board was when I was a child, yet we vigorously mimed washing our clothes on a wash board. It never occurred to us to wonder where the washing machine had disappeared to in the song.

I had a bit of vision when I was a small child, but not enough to pick up the motions that went with the song by observing the leader or the other children. My mother carefully taught me how to move my hands and arms and also what those motions represented. I suspect I may have been the only child in my group who knew that those pushing gestures in the Thursday verse represented kneading the bread.

But Mother wasn't satisfied simply to teach me to go through the motions of taking care of a home; she insisted that I learn how to be an effective member of the family. Once I overcame my initial annoyance at being forced to do chores around the house, I have always been grateful that she invested the effort to teach me to be self-sufficient.

How does one do the laundry without looking at the job? The secret of efficient clothes washing is proper sorting. But how does a blind person accurately sort colors and fabrics? The answer is by touch.

My first laundry task as a small child was to collect my father's dress shirts for their trip to the laundry, where the collars could be starched stiff, the way Dad liked them. I liked the stiff collars too, because it was easy to find them quickly in the dirty clothes hamper. The rest of the laundry got sorted on the basement floor. Underwear and sheets could go together. Jeans, wash pants, and boys' and men's socks formed the basis of another pile. Obviously delicate fabrics made a third stack.

With those things out of the way, I was left with all the pieces that might be light colored or might be dark. There was nothing to do but learn to identify them. I quickly discovered that I already knew the colors of my own clothes. I knew what I had worn in recent days and thrown into the wash. For the rest of the family I had to memorize the colors by identifying texture, buttons, and location of pockets and zippers. In the early days Mother checked to see that I had sorted the loads correctly, but eventually we learned to trust my own decisions. After all, if I really wasn't sure in which pile a garment belonged, I could leave it out for later consultation.

Naturally I had to learn the hard way to check for crayons in pockets. But all of us have discovered to our sorrow what happens when a red crayon melts in the dryer all over a load of light-colored clothes. Actually, throughout all the years of laundry for my own three children, I had surprisingly few of these catastrophes. This is undoubtedly because my fingers pay close attention to information like a bit of extra weight or a hard object in a pocket under several layers of cloth.

Like every other washing machine in the nation, mine has always tended to eat socks. I cannot imagine where so many single socks can disappear in a load of wash. Before I discovered the solution to this problem, we had a designated orphan drawer in our house. All unmated socks that came through the wash went into that drawer. In an emergency a desperate child could usually assemble a passable pair of socks from the extras.

Then I decided to take radical action. I couldn't match a dryer full of single socks anyway, so I put a bowl of safety pins in the bathroom and told everybody to pin socks together before they went into the laundry baskets. I promised that, if socks were pinned, they would be returned to the owner folded together. If they went through the wash one by one, they would be dumped into the orphan drawer. Everyone soon learned that it was simpler to pin the socks together than to brave the sock drawer in search of something to wear.
I said earlier that the ironing board is almost extinct in America. I certainly don't iron nearly as much as my mother did or as I did when I was a kid. But mine still gets a fair workout, even today. Partly this is because I have the luxury of a laundry room on the second floor. It is a converted sun porch.

When we first moved to our home, built in 1891, I found myself carrying laundry from the bathroom at the back of the second floor to the staircase at the front of the house and then back to the basement steps at the rear of the first floor. Our house is large--thirteen rooms--and our then toddler was frightened to be left alone while I went off to feed the washer and dryer. So I usually carried not only the dirty clothes but also the squirmy baby whenever I made this extended trip.

It was great exercise, but I began to have fantasies about having the washer and dryer on the second floor. That is where they have been now for twenty years, and it is a lovely arrangement. The only drawback is that I am tempted to toss a load into the washer late in the evening and into the dryer just before tumbling into bed. The result is wrinkles.

Actually I rather enjoy ironing. I don't burn myself more than occasionally. The iron radiates enough heat to tell my left hand exactly where it is. With just a bit of practice it is easy to determine by touch whether the wrinkles have disappeared. And, if I accidentally press in a crease, a spritz of water allows me to press it out again.

I fill my steam iron with distilled water to prevent stains from mineral deposits on the clothes. Using a funnel, I put the water into a clean dish-washing-liquid bottle. The nozzle lid on my recycled plastic bottle allows me to invert it over the iron's water well before opening the nozzle and squeezing out enough water to fill the iron. I can hear the well filling, but even if it overflows a bit, holding the iron flat for a moment allows it to spit out the excess before I put it down on the fabric.

This is the way blind people wash our clothes and iron our clothes and take care of our families. Is it any different from the way other people do the job? Not really. The members of the National Federation of the Blind aren't amazing. There is nothing magic about learning to adjust to blindness. It takes a bit of time and some practice to train your fingers and ears to do the things that other people do with sight, but it can be done. We know because we've done it.