Marion Cranston Painter – Her Daughter (Helen’s) Memories

My Mother, the Laundress

In the 1950’s and 1960’s Belle Fourche was a town of about 5,000 people. It was a time when kids walked everywhere or maybe rode their bicycles. Being the 5th of 10 children and starting at age 11, the oldest daughter at home, I was called upon to help my Mom with myriad tasks within my capabilities.

Often I was sent downtown to buy groceries or some other needed item. Sometimes I was sent shopping alone or with a sibling for clothes or shoes for myself or my brothers or sisters. Not something most parents in a city would even think of allowing their 11 or 12 year-old to do. But all the clerks knew my Mom and guided me in my choices – I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mom was shopping with me even though she wasn’t there.

Once when buying shoes at Hodge Bootery, Leonard Hodge said, “Your mother is the hardest working woman in Belle Fourche.” I gasped and looked skeptical and replied, “How would you know that?” Leonard told me that at one time or another he sold shoes to everyone in town. He explained that of all the shoes he sold, no one’s shoes were as worn out as Mom’s when she bought a new pair. I thought about the ugly nurse’s style oxfords Mom wore with her house dresses and agreed they were shot when she bought new ones.

Still I wondered if we were talking about the same woman – I would agree she worked hard, but the hardest working woman in town? Now looking back with 50 years hindsight I realize that at age 12, I saw what Mom didn’t get done and Leonard saw and admired the tremendous effort she continuously put forward. I thought about the times dishes weren’t done right after a meal, or the times the living room was a mess when company came, and the frustration of not being able to find a clean pair of socks or underwear. Leonard saw the shoes that one woman wore out on a regular basis.

This was about the time I was given responsibility for washing and ironing my own laundry and that of one of my brothers. After I became responsible for my own laundry, I didn’t always have clean socks or underwear, but I knew who to blame and I certainly heard complaints from my brother when my laundry skills lapsed. To this day it still is a wonderful gift when someone washes and folds a load of laundry for me – ironing not required! The two or three times Mom was able to visit me in my own home, she cheerfully and seemingly effortlessly gave me that gift among many others.

Even though I was mostly responsible for my own laundry, Mom filled in loads she was doing with some of my things. When Mom did laundry, she carefully sorted and folded it and placed it on the steps going up to our bedrooms. Mom didn’t just sort or fold clothes – she folded them in tight little packages with no wrinkles so they’d look nice when you put them away and when you wore them.

Laundry was placed on the steps in ascending order in order of our age. We were supposed to pick up our own laundry on our way upstairs and put it away. In high school I shared a bedroom with my three sisters and three brothers shared the other upstairs bedroom. Being kids, we would walk right by our clean laundry and not even see it. When we were dressing we sometimes ran down the stairs, grabbed only the item we needed and left the rest of our pile on our step. We got scolded and corrected, but didn’t change our habits. Kids, right?

One day we came home from school and found all the clean laundry Mom had done and the laundry we’d been leaving on the steps thrown around our bedroom – on the floor, hanging from the mirror, on the chair, on the bed. Now I’m embarrassed that I had the nerve to scold Mom for that, but I walked right into it and said, “Mom, why did you do that?” She said, “Well that’s what you all do with your laundry when I wash, sort, and fold it – I was just saving both of us some effort.”

I heard Mom say more than once that she should cite her occupation as laundress instead of housewife and when I was a freshman in college, I learned why she felt that way. I came home for a school break. My younger brothers and sisters were still in school and Mom had been in the hospital for a week. Dad and kids had been taking care of things. I got a good look at everything Mom did by seeing it not done. I tackled the kitchen and laundry – I hadn’t yet learned the rhythm of starting a load, going off to do dishes and then getting back when the load finished to start another one, even though the laundry room was right off the kitchen. I worked on the kitchen and sporadically remembered the laundry so after about four hours, I had cleaned the kitchen but hadn’t dented the laundry.

Dad let me take the laundry to the Laundromat in Deadwood. I put all the seats down in the back of the station wagon and filled the back end with dirty clothes. Seven hours later I was back home with 27 loads of folded and sorted laundry – folded with precision like Mom did. Each person had a cardboard box or two of only their things and guess what – they didn’t put them away, they dressed out of the boxes.

It’s a wonder Mom didn’t go to the hospital with bleeding ulcers more than she did.

A funny thing about Mom – she could sit or lie down and fall asleep almost immediately. I never heard her complain of insomnia. I also was never around her when she wasn’t working hard or had trouble sleeping. She never told us hard work improves your sleep; she showed us. Hers was the sleep of the just!

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