The Lysistratas of Laundry
When Hurricane Sandy's blackout finally ended, the power surge fried all the electronics in my dishwasher. Through those four days of dark, we'd been looking forward to machine-washing our dishes, and then when the lights finally came back on, we had two more weeks of hand-scrubbing to do. Or, more accurately, Dan had two more weeks of it, because I hate washing dishes so much I will voluntarily take on almost any other household chore to avoid it. When the new dishwasher arrived--thank you, homeowner's insurance!--we felt as if we had finally made it back to the 20th century after a sojourn in the 19th. It put me in mind of this story my grandmother told me:
My father was born in a backwoods Adirondack town where snow season starts in early October, a town that never recovered the prosperity of its clear-cut logging days after the clear-cutting ended. My grandmother was the town's music teacher, a concert-qualtiy musician from Westchester who made a left turn with her life. In 1949, my grandmother found out what happens when you wash cloth diapers--the only kind of diapers at the time--to keep up with a baby's needs and then have to hang the diapers to dry indoors. What would be the point of hanging them outside to freeze in the snow? The house's coal furnace had only one heating register, in the middle of the dining room, so that's where she set up the drying rack. The days were so cold, the condensation from the cloth diapers formed a half-inch-thick layer of ice on the inside surfaces of all the windows.
That winter, a newfangled invention called an electric dryer finally reached Forestport. A neighbor in the cottage down by the river got the first dryer in town. Word spread fast among the mothers. My grandmother looked at the drying rack over the heating register, looked at the ice dripping off the windows into her floor, and looked at her baby, who had a lot of diaper-wearing still ahead of him. She declared to my grandfather the same thing all the other mothers in town declared to their husbands: she would not wash one more diaper, not one, until he placed an order for an electric dryer.
Had it just been clothing at stake, the Forestport fathers might have been able to refuse, but a person can only live with so many unwashed diapers under his roof before he takes drastic action. Washing the cloth diapers themselves was just not within the scope of manly behavior in 1949, so one by one the men ordered dryers. And if my grandmother's jubilation when her dryer arrived was anything like ours at the advent of our new dishwasher, that must have been as happy a winter as Forestport ever saw.