When the washing machine was a gadget of the future, or when it hadn’t reached the distribution it has, washing by hand was an art. Whether in a bowl, pan or sink, the white suds, but especially the characteristic whap-whap-whap typical of rubbing clothes between fists, signaled the presence of a consummate laundress.
As far as I know it was always a women’s occupation, men who needed washing done, with their awkward hand positions, or with a saving brush, would omit the ritual of soaking the piece over and over again, immediately accompanied by the whap-whap-whap.
At that time in my past when I gave it my best in the useless Schools in the Countryside, in the first of these (1967), my bunk mate was Silvia, a black girl three years older than me, shrewd and flirtatious. Silvia spent the week with her hair in plastic rollers secured thanks to an electrical cord wrapped around the ends of each roller.
Every night before bed, without a mirror but with tremendous skill, Silvia unrolled her rollers and rolled them up again. On Saturdays Silvia barely combed her hair, where the results of the week’s rollers was clearly evident.
But my admiration for Silvia was in the laundry, where why managed to return white shirts to their original color after wearing them to work in the fields. As a part of my conversion from a mama’s girl to a “New Woman” my mother changed my sheets, towel and work pants on the weekly visit, but the rest I had to wash myself.
I tried to imitate the Silvia’s dexterity and her whap-whap-whap, but didn’t accomplish either. My shirts finished those forty-five days pinkish-brown while Silvia’s came back impeccable.
After that I was determined to master the mystery of scrubbing clothes, and even get the exact rhythm of the whap-whap-whap. I’ve discovered that this sound has nothing to do with the efficiency of the wash, so when I need to wash something really dirty I always use a brush. The whap-whap-whap is comforting music.
September 27 2012