Chapter 4: The Laundress, 1880

The soul shrinks
From all that is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

Susannah awoke to a tap-dance of November rain on the slant roof overhead – light feet with copper pennies on their shoes. The thought made her smile; Tom loved these silly little thoughts of hers - if only he were here. He’d be awake now, savoring a few more minutes in the warm comfort of their shared bed.

Oh God, how I miss him! I’m so lonely; at least the telegram let me know he made it safely to America. America! The realization sent a flush of mixed fear and exultation through her body. In a few months she and the children would be on their way there too. I have to keep thinking of the new possibilities for all of us there and stifle my dark thoughts of the bogeyman behind every tree.

Dawn was an hour off yet. She whispered the last few words of her morning prayer as she crept out of bed to start the water boiling for the laundry. She didn’t need a candle to find her way in their tiny room under the eaves. There was just a narrow aisle between the bed and Henry’s cot and she still slept on the outside of Tom’s old double bed, away from the wall, even though she could sprawl out now that she was alone; from there she could tend to Henry if he cried during the night, sometimes just reaching out to stroke his hand would settle him. Thankfully he had slept through the whole of last night, letting her get enough rest to stay on her feet most of today. Mondays were the busiest day of the week. Frank would bring four wheelbarrows of laundry this morning, two from the Green’s house and two from Milner’s boarding house. She could hear Catherine waking Frank now for his toast and tea before heading out to pick up the laundry. Even at this hour there would be other boys out on the same errands for their mothers or grandmothers. There was no lack of business in the laundry trade. It was the first onerous chore women were willing to pay someone else to do as soon as they could afford to hire a laundress.

Feeling for the pitcher on the chest of drawers, she poured a little water into the basin to wash her face. She peered automatically into the darkness where the little mirror hung, smirking at her own foolishness, thinking how many things we do out of habit. She ran a brush through her thick brown hair winding it into a knot held in place with a net and combs at the nape of her neck. She wouldn’t need a mirror to see what she looked like in a couple of hours after hanging over the steaming wash tub for a while; wet strands of hair would be sticking to her cheeks and neck as the sweat trickled down her face - - - another Monday. She tiptoed over to cover Henry and kissed his forehead. She’d send Maudy to fetch him when he was awake.

Passing the tiny window in their room, Susannah looked out into the dark gray pre-dawn, barely able to make out the low hill in the distance. Quietly stepping through the doorway into the narrow hall, it occurred to her that mountains of ripe clothes will soon rise up to meet her in the dank scullery at the foot of the stairs --- a vision of the day’s climb over baskets and bags of the outside world’s dirty laundry. That thought and the smell of food wafting up the stairwell, brought on the nausea.

Downstairs, the smell of breakfast being prepared drove her out into the back garden and through the rain to the privy. With the morning sickness of this pregnancy, even the brief comfort of toast and tea and the little kitchen rituals that never change, was withheld from her these days.

She spoke a soft good morning to Frank as he came, blurry-eyed, down the path to get the old wheelbarrow for his rounds. He was a good boy, never any back-talk to his Mum and good with Maudy too, even though she pestered him constantly. She was glad he’d be moving to America soon after them. Even at ten he was a help to her now that Tom was away, running errands for her, keeping track of Maudy.

She took a deep breath as she entered the kitchen, the nausea having subsided. She knew she needed something in her stomach to get through the morning’s work, she hoped she could keep it down.

She smiled another quiet “Good morning” to Katherine, stretching on tip toes to reach her old rose teacup in the cupboard. Her mother had given her two of these when she and Tom were married. It reminded her that she’d have to decide what she could bring to America with them after the baby was born. They had no furniture of their own so there would only be their few clothes, and special small things like these, to pack for the journey. She sighed --- six months until spring; but she pushed the thoughts away as she sat to have a few bites of toast and let the tea warm her---and the baby.

Drying the last few dishes, Katherine glanced over at Susannah. She had seen her hurry out the back door earlier but even though her face was still as pale as the whitewashed wall, there was the usual determination in her posture. She was a strong woman, which was a blessing to all of them, but Katherine worried about Susannah’s decision to travel to America immediately after the baby is born in May. It is only two years after the loss of little Mary Eliza; such a sweet child during the 11 months they had her. And Susannah had been pregnant with Henry when they lost her. It didn’t seem wise to bring a new-born into the crowded conditions of a passenger ship for more than a two week journey. Katherine shuddered to think of another heartbreak, but she kept her thoughts to herself, saying only:

“If we’re lucky the rain will stop this afternoon so we can hang the laundry outside.”
“Oh, I hope so. The cottage is like a swamp with the clothes hanging indoors, not to mention threading our way through old Mr. Smith’s drawers and Lady Green’s corsets.”
They both laughed at this and it was good to make light of their long workday about to begin.

Peering out the deep whitewashed walls of the window well over the sink, Susannah’s pale face took on a glow of lavender and rose tints, fleeting colors of a sunrise, diluted as quickly as the sky blue of rinse water and the last of the receding gray drizzle . Would she freeze the scene if she had the power? She knew there was no point in asking such questions. She’d learned by experience, at an early age, that happiness is doled out in these morsels, that somehow intense beauty depends upon a brief glimpse, a momentary pleasure.

Hearing the warning squeak of the old cartwheels she straightened up, an absentminded sigh escaping from her lips. The coming of the cart signals the start of laundry day as clearly as a bugle announces the start of battle.

As the water was heating to a boil in the copper, she began sorting the soiled clothes and linen into piles. She wished she had more space to separate the white linens and cotton from the rough boarding house work clothes.*Her thoughts shifted to Tom, out there on the open ocean, yet crowded into the bowels of the ship with the other low-price ticket holders. She wondered if the melody of the dance tunes floated down to them from the first class ballroom overhead. It occurred to her that here in her cramped laundry, stains and stench cling equally to the underclothes of prince and pauper.

She inspected each item, turning it over in the hunt for stains she’d have to treat before she set them to soak. This part of the job could cause the loss of customers if she wasn’t thorough. It was time consuming and hard on her hands. She thought about how the reputation of a laundress’s worth hung upon talk in the neighborhood of how skillful she was in rubbing out stains and whitening the linen. It amused her to wonder whether, if she could clean up her clients’ stained souls as well as she did their clothes - wash out the dirt and disorder of life, folding it back into sweet smelling stacks of gleaming linen - would her skills be so appreciated or in demand. Hmm---she wondered. Tom would have a quick teasing retort to that, Susannah, she told herself.


Her mind wandered back to that day at the Green’s, when she was hanging clothes in the back garden, behind the hedge in the drying yard. It was one of those rare, clear days when you wished you could just lie down and soak up the warm sun, rest, daydream, pretend, when she heard the words she thought she would never forget.

“Hello, have you seen Jester run through? I was walking him when he took off after a rabbit.”

He caught the corner of the sheet she dropped when his voice had startled her. Reaching over her head he pinned it to the line.

“They used to lay them on the grass in the old days; did you know?

He lowered his hand to her breast and for a split second she felt herself swoon, then stiffen and flush in anger. It was as if he had somehow read her thoughts, sensed her vulnerability and slithered into the garden with his tongue flickering.

Susannah had never told Tom about those days in service when she had to find more and more clever ways to avoid Owen Green’s advances without making him angry enough to have her fired. She knew he must have suspected though, since it was not uncommon for the men of an upper class household to prey upon the young female servants.

As she started to treat the stained pieces she’d separated from the piles, Catherine came in with Henry trotting behind her dragging his brown bear, another cast-off from the Greens brought home by Lucy. It looked at Susannah with knowing glass eyes; he used to live on a cushy little bed in a bright beautiful nursery at the top of the big house. How he had fallen; nevertheless he loved Master Henry’s squeezes and hugs and was getting used to the cozy cot under the eaves, although he detested this dark, dank, smelly swamp of a scullery on laundry days.

Henry ran to his mother, throwing his little arms happily around her neck as she bent down to catch him up, and laying his sandy colored head on her shoulder for a moment before starting up his chatter. Susannah hugged her son tightly then settled him in his usual corner on the sturdy cloth swing Tom had hung from a ceiling beam for him. He’d be content in it for a while, pretending to read to Bear from the picture book as Mummy did. Later she’d have to lay chairs on their side to mark out a safe territory in the corner of the scullery to keep Henry from crawling through the piles of dirty laundry. Her stomach turned over as a flood of grief washed through her, unbidden, with thoughts of Mary Eliza. Potential for disease clung to these dirty clothes. There was no rest from worry, or from vigilance to protect Henry and Maude.

If the day stayed sunny with a soft breeze, Maudy could play in the garden and dance with the petticoats, as she had told Susannah last Monday.