Idealizing and Spiritualizing Washing

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

BORN and bred in a New England village where most families had to “ do their own work,” and being besides a tender-hearted boy of perhaps morbidly acute sympathies, a gloomy pall had hung over all my early years through — what shall I say ? Some may affect to smile at so trivial a cause, but I never.

Neither more nor less was it than the inexorable weekly boomerang return of that more than Draconian domestic institution, the stated Monday household wash. From my tenderest years, I was forced to see that in all families of limited means, and, consequently, of limited elbow, patience, and sweetness power, this dire visitation fell noways short of the sternest kind of high-wrought tragedy, beneath whose lurid cloud - rack husbands all day long held their bated breath in fear, while wives were wrought to a pitch of the most formidable electric tension.

“Ah, the pity of it, the pity of it!” I would cry as I looked on at some poor, despairing woman relieved, like a lone Egyptian fellah in the desert, against a Gizeh pyramid of soiled clothes. True, I knew that inventive minds had sought to come to her rescue through the proffer of elaborate machinery; but, for one, my position was radical. I did not believe in machinery for washing any more than in machinery for religion. What was imperatively demanded, I felt, was a fuller influx of soul.

Graduating later on from college and then going abroad for a couple of years, no siren song of Italian art or Alpine scenery ever exerted spell seductive enough to beguile me of my sense of the forlorn and even tragic conditions under which the stern ordeal of washing is carried on in my native land; till, like Milton in his youthful pilgrimage in Italy, I felt I could never be justified in traveling with an easy conscience unless keeping out all the while what the seamen call a " weather-eye ” round the horizon for any sign bright with promise of bettering this unhappy state of things at home. For long, however, no rainbow arc of cheer visited my despondent mind until, on being suddenly ordered by my doctor out of the heat and malaria of lower Italy, I was dispatched by him for recuperation to a little mountain hamlet, lying some 3500 feet above sealevel on the Italian slope of the Alps.

It was after nightfall when, at the end of my wearisome journey and mortally tired with the last three hours’ climb up the mountain side, I reached my destination, with no other thought but of a hearty supper and tumbling incontinently into bed. Of all that was in blessed store for me with returning day I no more dreamed than slumbering Adam when, in the silent watches of the night, his spare rib was deftly removed, and he awoke next morning to find in its stead by his side smiling, rosy Eve.

Shortly after daybreak, the first sound to awaken me was that of peals of hilarious laughter. The voices were unmistakably women’s voices; and piqued with curiosity to get at the cause of so much merriment, I jumped like lightning into my clothes and sallied out of the inn. It must be, I was sure, something at least as good as Punch and Judy. No ! Millennium of millenniums ! — " Credo quia impossible! ” as Tertullian hath it — it was nothing more nor less than plain, average, once-a-week village washingday; and there was I, alive, and in the actual flesh, to witness the exhilarating sight.

Into a great stone tank in the centre of the little public square — a tank 30 feet by 10 — a stream of crystal-clear mountain water was pouring in continuous flood, while all around the brink, their skirts tucked up and their powerful arms bared to the shoulders, stood the women old and young. “ Arma, virumque cano ” never shot thrill of inspiration into Virgil as now “ Arms and these women ” into me. For oh ! what arms ! “ Vae victis ! ” woe, woe to seams and buttons ! Never a trace there of moping melancholy! Never a look of frantic despair at the mountain pile of clothes one lone, unaided creature had got to cope with; but, in their stead, the glee and corporate courage born of numbers and of the martial touch of shoulder to shoulder.

Simply to stand by and look on was as good as a play. Already, elbows and knuckles were in lively action ; sprays of water leaping high into the air, and rainbow bubbles dancing merrily on the surface. But it was dance of mind and soul, iridescent bubbles of cheer and love and humor and kindling eloquence, I was after. Liberation of lone wash-tub human nature’s yearning for social expression ; gratification of its inborn artistic impulse for dramatic spectacle ; show me this, I cried, — above all, show it me on washing-day, — and I will die blissfully content as if I had seen Naples and then succumbed to the inexorable conditions incident to that ravishing sight! And there it was before my very eyes!

Already had a lively topic got started for common talk. It was the recent festival down in Promontogno, or the latest engagement in the hamlet, or the village pastor’s last Sunday sermon, and now in a trice was it clear what vigorous dramatic eloquence the fine inspiration of washing imparts to the too often dead-level prose of human speech.

Here, for example, towered an Amazon who — just at the height of the crisis when she was rubbing the soap into an especially dirty spot in the shirt she had in hand — had taken exception to something she by no means subscribed to in the pastor’s last Sunday’s discourse. How magnificent the vim with which she applied the caustic bar alike of soap and criticism, and then rubbed and rubbed as though it were not a shirt, but the very manuscript itself and, in it, the obnoxious doctrine in blackest ink, on which she was concentrating her fellest energies. Then lo ! as in the very nick of simultaneous time she had annihilated alike the spot of dirt and the invidious doctrine, how superb her attitude as she heaved on high and flung wide to the breeze the now stainless garment, while all gazed on in breathless admiration. Rachel or Bernhardt would have been inspired with a life-enduring lesson for the grand climacterics of Phédre or L’Aiglon ; yes, and have humbly confessed that, in their early dramatic education, a single year spent at the brink of this native fountain of art and eloquence would have outweighed three in the traditional Conservatoire of Paris.

Next a rival sibyl focused the eyes of all, as she stood wringing with muscular arms, suggestive of Laocoön wrestling with the serpents’ coils, a huge crash-linen sheet. Sheet ? — the sheet was the merest symbol. It was the last refuge of lies she was wringing out of some bad character in the neighborhood, or out of some perilous tendency to levity or flirting or ribbons she was deprecating in the young. " Here ! here ! ” I cried in transport, “ is that larger influx of soul I have all my life been battling for as sole salvation of washing-day. How clear at sight alike the material and the spiritual gain ! In no mere unimpassioned mood could this woman begin to wring so dry; while all the time she is searching home the consciences of her mates with a power the village pastor, debarred by the proprieties of the pulpit from such superb dramatic adjuncts, can never aspire to wield.

Seriously, was not the sight of so delightful a transformation of a dull, mechanical operation into a school of lively, neighborly gossip, play of humor and critical comment, morals and sacred eloquence, with its star performers and rarely appreciative auditory, something worthy the name of idealizing and spiritualizing washing? Not that there is not in our own land plenty of transcendentally high-flying talk about art as the solace, cheer, and inspiration of else prosaic human life. But it dilates with enthusiasm only over Venuses of Milo and Venuses de Medici, while it affects to curl its æsthetic lip in scorn over charming village Tanagra figurines, — totally unmindful of the patent fact that all and more than the Olympic games were to Phidias and Praxiteles, such might the transfigured wash-tub become to our own actors, painters, sculptors, and poets, along with their appreciative admirers. “ Ah ! " I sighed, “ the dramatic talents that have gone to waste, the elsewise merry lives that have been sunk in moaning melancholy, the moral lepers that have got off with ’withers unwrung,’ through drear inheritance of the worse than Calvinistic ban of reprobation that back - country women are not artistic ; and, so, have no gamut in their natures of humor, pathos, wrath or tears, demanding but such an arena to call them out.”