My mother would kill me. Of course she wouldn’t literally, she whose love for my sister and me was the driving force of her life, but the old expression got a workout throughout my youth: my mother would kill me if I drove too fast, hid a porno magazine under my bed, or joined friends with illegal beer under the stadium at Friday night football games. Not, of course, that I performed any of those wicked acts. The expression was for me and I suspect others who used it a means of self-enforcing standards of conduct by projecting them to someone else.
The expression came to me today as I hung bedding on the line. Hanging laundry outside to dry in crisp sunshine is one of the three favorite things I (otherwise a total winter person) like about summer and miss when the seasons change. The others are biking and boating, and they disappear from my routine even earlier than hanging laundry. I’ve been known to continue the practice until I have to shake the ice out of the sheets.
But back to maternal murder. My mother would kill me if she saw the utter chaos of my laundry hanging. She prided herself on lining up the laundry by color and size. This has not proved to be a heritable trait. I pin up sheets and pillow cases in no particular order, intent more on fitting too many items on the small line strung between trees near our brook than in creating a perfectly ordered composition. . If she were alive, my mother would take a look at my messy line, shake her head, and silently re-hang them, imposing maternal order on her son’s sloppy approach, perhaps hoping that someday he’ll get it right the first time.
Why does this simple act, even when carried out with so little regard to my mother’s standards, give me such pleasure? Of course it’s environmentally wise, saving electricity the dryer uses. Beyond that it achieves a sensual delight: the smell of sunshine when I remake the bed. I think the whole business is actually also related to writing. Putting words on paper is a lot like putting sheets on the line—sometimes you just throw them together to see what fits. Then you edit, rearranging the words to create an effect. I try to edit my writing ruthlessly, but occasionally it’s fun to hold back on cutting and rearranging to take a look at what your first effort brought. Sometimes you like that—and sometimes not. Hanging sheets on the line with gay abandon might be a form of therapy for a writer since, except for my late mother, no one really cares what my clothesline looks like. Messiness and disorder in first drafts can serve a good purpose if it leads to the next step of careful editing.
And then maybe there’s a bit of rebellion implicit here. Maybe it’s not just drying the items but deliberately hanging them in a way my mother would disapprove. Freud would have an answer, but I’m not going to wait for it. It’s only mid September, and I’ve got a few more months to hang the laundry, smell the sunshine—and perhaps assert my independence from my beloved mother.