My mother stands at the kitchen sink, wearing shorts and a tube top, washing the delicates, the things she doesn't dare send to the laundry.
She hangs the clothes in the back yard, propping the line up with clothes poles. Never would my mother wash sheets and towels or my brother's or father's socks. She does not own a wringer washer, although my father has shown her how much money they could save in the long run by doing so.
Every week we gather our clothes in great piles on the floor, and my mother sorts through them, making a list.
"This list is the only proof we have of what we sent. Still they lose things," she says. I count my socks and report the number. She is already counting my father's shirts that will be delivered in cellophane packets, stiff with cardboard and starch, shirts that he wears to his law office in the Chicago's Loop.
"Your grandmother kept a spotless house," my mother tells me, making yet another laundry checklist. "She was down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors daily. She had to make meals for 10 people and figure out how to make the food stretch. We don't eat cabbage today because I had enough for a lifetime when I was growing up.
"But no matter how poor we were, she always sent out the laundry. There was always someone poorer who would do the wash for a pittance. I know it killed her to spend the money, but she was from wealth back in Russia, and women in the manor house didn't do their own wash."
Our lives change with my parents' divorce. It's still the 1950s, and I know only one other person who has divorced parents. She's my best friend, Cynthia Hoffman, who lives across the street. Her mother stays in bed every day till the late afternoon, and when she does get up, she usually doesn't change out of her silk pajamas into street clothes. When I see her sitting up in bed brushing her blond hair, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe come to mind.
No one has ever seen Mrs. Hoffman at the A&P or Diamond Meat Market. Cynthia's father comes to collect her and take her to the zoo or for lunch. That's about what happens when my parents divorce. My father buys a Thunderbird, and my mother says that's why the support payments are late or missing.
Now the laundry truck no longer comes to the house. Instead, every week, my mother puts the clothes in my brother's old Radio Flyer red wagon. Then we walk around the whole block to Harper Avenue where Syd's Wet/Dry Wash sits next to a tenement. Syd sits behind the counter, always in an undershirt. He has a tattoo of a snake on one arm and a naked woman on the other arm, and he doesn't try to hide either one of them. Syd waits for my mother to lift the huge bundle to the counter. He watches as she struggles with it. Then he weighs it.
"Wet or dry, lady?" he asks.
My mother purses her lips. "Dry," she says. And then she asks: "Are you sure it's 15 pounds?"
"My scale don't lie," Syd says.
One day we go in. "Wet or dry?" Syd asks. He always asks, even though we've been coming in for almost a year now.
"Wet," my mother says. Both Syd and I do a double take.
"I just thought," my mother says carefully, "that since it's getting to be warm out again that the clothes will smell fresher if we hang them on a line."
Now, everything goes on our lines in the back yard. Sheets, towels, jeans, everything. When winter comes, my mother moves the operation indoors, stringing up a maze of lines in the basement.
We move across Chicago to the north side, first to a third floor walk-up near Wrigley Field. There are washing machines in the basement. It's dark and smelly, and there is no place you would ever want to put your clothes down to fold them. My mother uses the machines, always with a frown. My job is to make sure nothing falls on the concrete floor.
My friend Cynthia and I have made a pact to call each other every week. "Guess what?" I say in my first call to her. "We live in a building with washing machines in the basement. We do our own wash without having to go outside."
When I get off the phone, my mother screams at me. "Never, never, never tell anyone about the washing machines. It's none of anyone's business what we do anyhow. You and your big mouth. Promise me you will never tell anyone else. Promise!"
I shake my head. "And for your information, missy," she says, still in her hollering voice, "Cynthia's mother is not a movie star. Mrs. Hoffman is an alcoholic. Yes, you might as well know the truth. That's why she stays in bed all day. She gets so drunk she can't get up."
I stare at my mother, wanting to believe she is wrong about Mrs. Hoffman and knowing she is probably right. She was right about Syd's scale being weighted wrong, and she was right about my father not wanting to come through with extra money for a Girl Scout uniform.
The next Sunday it's Cynthia's turn to call me. I wait by the phone for hours.
"Maybe she's on vacation," my mother suggests. I wait a whole week, and finally I call her. The maid answers.
"Just a minute, I'll see if she's home." A minute passes, and the woman comes back to the phone. "She's still eating brunch. She'll call you in a few minutes."
I sit at our kitchen table. We live on a busy street and I can see the neon sign from Pape's Drugstore across the avenue. At 3 I'm still sitting at the table. My mother tells me to get up.
At 6 I come back in the kitchen for dinner. "She's not going to call, is she?"
"Well, probably not," my mother says. She scoops out the sticky Minute Rice and a once-frozen filet of sole that she fries in a skillet until the edges are almost black.
A few months later we move farther north in the city, and my mother gets a job doing bookkeeping in a bank. We find a launderette, not unlike Syd's, about two blocks away, and they pick up and deliver. We are able to afford the dry wash again.
Many years pass and the husband and wife who own the laundry retire, selling the business to someone else; but my mother tells me long-distance, she works out a deal with the former owner, and he still picks up her laundry and takes it to his old place and delivers it as usual a few days later, even though he is stooped with arthritis and she now lives up a steep flight of stairs.
Karen Loeb is a writer who lives in Eau Claire, Wis. Her stories will be published in a collection titled Jump Rope Queen. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.