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Stirring up memories


Wash Day Memories
May 4, 2005

            Bettye Holder Hudson White taught at Bainbridge College for thirty years.  Now that she is retired, she is retrieving some of her childhood memories.  Betty is a member of the first Older Women’s Legacy Circle sponsored by the Post-Searchlight and the Arts Council.  She wrote this as part of the workshop and shares it with us for Mother’s Day.

            Betty grew up just outside of Louisville, Mississippi on a farm that her widowed mother, Eunice Hatcher Holder operated alone—except for help son Harlan and daughter Bettye.



As I made the bed this morning, a particular piece of material in the wedding ring quilt Mother had a neighbor quilt for me seemed to stand out.  It was a piece of a favorite dress Mother made for me when I was nine years of age.

At that time, farmers ordered fertilizer for the crops from the co-op in the early spring.  It was then delivered on a flat bed truck to several farmers in the area at a time.  I am sure Mother looked forward to the truck arriving so she and my brother, Harlan, could “get the crops in the ground.”  For me, it was a special time for quite a different reason.   As soon as the truck stopped, I ran outside to begin looking at the patterns on the fertilizer sacks, for this is where I chose my Easter dress.  Around and around the truck I would go, looking for the prettiest design, making sure there were enough sacks available to make a dress yet not too many, since I didn’t want to have the same dress as anyone else in the neighborhood.  Even though it might be the prettiest design, I would look for another, because if there were many sacks it was likely that I would see someone else at church with a dress from the same material!  What a hard decision this was.  Mother would ask the driver what other deliveries had been made that day, and if he remembered who might have chosen the same design I had.  We also made curtains, towels and sheets from the fertilizer sacks.  The truck driver was always kind and patient with us.  I think it was about the same for everyone on his route, and he seemed to enjoy the visits and Mother’s teacakes with a glass of sweet milk, as he rested on the back steps.

I could hardly wait for the fertilizing to take place so I could rip the sacks apart.  They were put together with a sort of chain stitch and if you could get it started just right, you could pull one thread and it would come apart easily.  If you pulled the wrong thread, it was difficult to get it going right.  The sacks were shaken hard, rinsed, and then washed a few times to get all the fertilizer out and ready for sewing.  It took three or four sacks to make a double sheet, and I learned simple sewing in the process.  We started by binding the edges of the sacks and connected them using double felt seams.  It took many washings before the sheets were anywhere near soft and comfortable.

Depending on the weather, washday usually came about once a week although washing clothes became secondary if the garden needed to be put in, cotton picked, or corn pulled.  We would draw the water from the well and fill the wash pot and tubs.  Then Mother would build a fire under the wash pot to get the water hot, and shave some soap into the pot so it would melt before punching the clothes down in the hot water.  Although we were fortunate to have Octagon bar soap or Tide much of the time, she did use Red Devil lye or ashes to make soap occasionally.  These soaps were sure to make hands red and rough and the only help came from the Watkins man in the form of a salve, which usually did double duty for the cows’ bags.  After the clothes had been in the pot long enough, she would lift them out into a bucket with the battling stick, take them over to the wash tubs where the ones with stains or extra dirty spots would be put on the rub board with more soap.  The very dirty ones might go back in the pot for an extra time, but usually they went to the rinse water for me to finish.  The “good” clothes were rinsed in a starch water that Mother made.  They were then wrung out by hand and hung on the “good” clothesline.  The everyday clothes were hung on the barbwire fence at the back and side of the house.

The last chore connected to washing was taking a bucket of the hot wash water and mopping the floors in the house.  Although I can remember a corn shuck or rag mop, most of the time we had a big string mop that we scrubbed the floor hard with, and then rinsed at least once.  A couple of rooms that had wood, and not linoleum floors, had cracks where the water would seep through.  We were tired by the time the clothes had dried, brought in and folded, but the clothes and house smelled so fresh and good!

Some clothes could be folded or hung up immediately, but many were sprinkled with water and rolled up into a tight bundle for ironing later.  In the summer they might have been put in the icebox, to keep them from souring, for ironing the next day.    Electricity came to our community when I was nine, but even then it was a while before we could afford a refrigerator or other electric appliances.   My first memories of ironing were of using the flat irons and an ironing board, which was quite literally that …….a wide board that had an old quilt or sheets wrapped around it.  Two straight chairs were turned back to back about three feet apart, one of which was next to the wall, with something heavy in the seats to keep them from turning over.  I enjoyed ironing the handkerchiefs, pillowcases and the new material, but it was hard to make some of the starched things like pants and shirts meet Mother’s approval.

During this period of time, I remember Mother waking me up occasionally at night to help her start a fire in the wood stove to heat water.  She would be walking the floor, wringing her hands and sometimes even crying.  Her hands would be hurting and the only relief seemed to come from rubbing them in warm water.  Now, I understand why they hurt so much then and not in later years.  Not only did she have the washing, but other farm chores too.  At nine, I didn’t realize the effort my mother, who was a widow, was making each day for us.

The quilt pieces remind me of the clothes we wore, and the good times we had.  They also remind me of Mother’s love and hard work.  My brother and I and our families are who we are today because of the values she instilled in us.

Thank you, Betty.  This brings back lots of memories for me of my grandparents’ farm and those fertilizer sacks. 

            Let’s all go and give the nearest Mother a big hug!

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network