My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.
Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.
I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.
My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.
I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.
(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)
Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.
But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.
I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.
And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.
But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.
And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?
Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?
The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.
The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.
The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.
I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.
I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.
A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.
If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.