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An Amish Wash Day

Published: April 1, 2014 12:00 AM
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*Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect privacy. This story first appeared in Amish Heartland in September of 2000.

It is a lovely morning in early spring. The sun is just beginning to turn the sky pale blue, with a few high wispy clouds and a light breeze. It is a perfect day for an Amish homemaker to do the family's laundry.

Most of Mary Yoder's family is already up and about. Her husband John and the older boys are heading out to the barn to milk the cows. Eighteen-year-old Susie starts a fire in the wood heater in the basement, fills several galvanized buckets with water, and sets them on the heater. Fifteen-year-old Lena gathers up baskets of dirty laundry and carries them down to the basement to begin sorting into piles according to color and how heavily the clothes are soiled.

The younger boys, Sam and Daniel, have taken a job as helpers at a nearby poultry farm. Wrinkling her nose, Mary puts their blue denim pants and work shirts into a separate tub to begin soaking. Another tub is filled with diapers to be pre-rinsed in hot water and bleach. Since the twins were born last spring, Mary has three youngsters in diapers, and she washes those at least twice a week.

While the older girls go upstairs to the kitchen to start breakfast, Mary fills the tub of her wringer washer with hot water and soap. She starts the laundry by dumping in a pile of towels. Since all the laundry will be washed and rinsed in the same tub of water, she wants to start with the least-soiled items. She pulls the starter on a gasoline engine, and it roars into life. The engine powers the agitator on the washing machine, and the towels begin to tumble and spin in the water.

The family gathers around the table for a hearty breakfast of fried potatoes, bacon and eggs, and thick slices of buttered bread, topped off with chunks of apple pie. Since eldest daughter Betty was married last winter, there are only twelve chairs at the table. The twins have already been fed, changed and tucked back into their cradle. Ruth and Iva are only nine and seven, but they are both quite competent at caring for the babies and looking after toddler Aaron, with the help of four-year-old Laura.

Leaving the older girls to wash up in the kitchen, Mary returns to the basement to put the towels through the wringer, one at a time, into a fiberglass tub that stands next to the washer on high legs. She uses a plunger to push the towels into the hot rinse water and swirl them around to make sure all the soap is removed. Then she swings the wringer arm around to a position over the rinse tub and again feeds the towels, one at a time, through the wringer into a big basket. Susie and Lena will help hang the clothes on the line, but Mary carries this first basket up the steps and out to the back yard herself. She loves to feel the sun on her face as she pins the towels on the line. The breeze will quickly dry them and fill them with the fresh scent of the daylilies blooming along the back porch. In the meantime, Mary has already filled the washtub with white shirts and underwear, and added a little more soap and another bucket of hot water.

The family's Sunday clothes, dark-colored dresses and pants, will go into the washing machine next. These articles of perma-press knit will not require any ironing if they are squeezed out gently by hand and hung on the line on hangers. Heating the iron over the fire in the basement heater and standing over a steaming ironing board is not Mary's idea of fun on a warm day. The polyester fabric dries quickly too, allowing Mary and her helpers to gather them in before re-using the line for the family's socks, underwear, and work clothes. Even though John has strung up a fifth and sixth length of clothesline, Mary must still double up the diapers on the line in order to save space. In the winter, damp laundry might have to be spread out all over the basement and even upstairs to finish drying. Fortunately, the family's farm life and faith-based simplicity do not require many changes of clothing to meet the demands of fashion trends or even the change of season.

Laundry chores will take up most of Mary's day today. The clothes must be washed, rinsed, hung out, gathered in, pressed, folded and put away. In the meantime, her hungry brood will be clamoring for dinner at noon---and with the farm labor, the men are usually ready for a complete meal of potatoes, meat, salad, vegetables and dessert at midday. Then of course, the babies must be cared for, and the younger children supervised. Mary is thankful that she has been diligent in training her daughters, from the time they were small, to be reliable and competent workers. When her family was very young, Mary had a "hired girl"-usually a neighbor's teen-aged daughter-to help for about six weeks after the birth of each baby. But now the extra assistance is no longer needed, and Susie can even be spared to start her new position in September, teaching at the school just down the road where she finished her own studies several years ago.

By the end of the day, Mary is tired and looks forward to settling down in her hickory rocker near the kerosene lamp, with her never-ending pile of mending to occupy her hands. But she quietly thanks God for every sock, every shirt, and every diaper, because they tell the tale of a healthy, growing family.


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