Monday, December 5, 2011

The Tale Of A Broken Bedsheet

Minnesota is cold in the winter. Any state that lies just south of the Canadian border is bound to have sub-zero temperatures for about four months of each year. That's how it was the winter I was nine.  That was the year I learned a valuable lesson concerning living in freezing temps. I learned it by being utterly disobedient. I can tell the tale now because mom is gone on to her reward. If she was still with us, she would likely be sending me on to my reward. I not only flagrantly disobeyed her, I did it with malice and forethought. Thankfully, she never found out.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, there were no clothes dryers as we have now. Mom trekked all our laundry down two flights of stairs into the dreaded basement. You've heard me talk of being sent down there to retrieve jars of summer-canned fruits and vegetables for our winter table, and while all three of us girls despised going down into its dark and dank reaches, it was I who hated it the most. Too much imagination I would suspect. And too many Nancy Drew mysteries under my belt. Mom just laughed at us and said we were scaredy cats. I never let her know she was right.

Mom had the latest thing in a clothes washer. No more scrubbing on a washboard. Down there in the basement stood an odd sort of contraption with a wringer on it. That wringer could squeeze every drop of water out of the clothes that went through it. I was leary of it and never got too close. I knew if my fingers got caught in that thing, I'd never see them again. But I digress. Once mom had washed the clothes, she lugged them back up two flights of stairs and out onto the back porch where she hung them on the clotheslines to dry.

In the summer, spring, and autumn, it was a no brainer. I could easily figure out how the laundry would dry with weather still so fine. But in winter, when mom had to put on a coat, scarf, and rubber boots to hang the clothes, I often quipped that it seemed a useless endeavor. How could laundry dry in freezing temps, I asked her. She always said the same thing. "It will freeze, but it will dry. It was her mantra and I have lost count of how many times she always followed that up with a stern command. "If you go onto the porch for any reason, DO NOT bend the clothes or you'll break them."

I guess she thought I was stupid. I'd bent, twisted, and rolled a lot of clothes in my short life span and nothing had ever broken. And while I knew mom wasn't given to telling stories, I did think she was mistaken about frozen fabric. I eventually conjured up a whole scenario concerning why she would think such a thing and finally put it back on my grandpa, mom's dad, who loved to tease. I finally decided that it was Pa, which is what we girls called him, who had convinced my mom that frozen fabric was breakable.

Now the thing was, I was just dying to do my own experiment. I so wanted to prove to mom that she'd been hoodwinked. The problem was, the kitchen was open to the dining room and the dining room was open to the door onto the porch and worse yet, there was a window she could see through, all the way from the kitchen. So she'd know if I was out there in the dead of winter, purposely bending the laundry to prove my case. "Ahh, hahh,"  I wanted to say to her, "I bent the clothes and they are just fine."  But I never got the chance. Mom was always in the kitchen cooking or baking or digging out or putting away. I dare not take the chance that she'd see me. Punishment in our house consisted of pain across the backside.

The year I was nine I got my chance to investigate. The snow was high and new fallen, the wind was cold and the day overcast. Surely another snow storm was on the way. As luck would have it, mom decided to head out to the grocery store, just in case we got snowed in for a few days. I saw my chance. Not knowing how soon she'd return, I headed for the back door onto the porch, no jacket, no scarf, no head covering, no boots. Just me in my indoor clothes. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. I just had to know if frozen clothes could break.

It was sheet day. With five of us in the family, and only three clothes lines, mom divided the laundry into increments. That day it was bedding. There they were, a whole gaggle of muslin sheets, hanging on the line like frozen ghosts. And even though there was a cold wind, the sheets didn't move. I reached out and touched one. Yep, it was frozen alright. Stiff as cardboard.

I gave my upcoming experiment considerable thought. I should have done it before braving the horrendous cold in indoor clothes, but my mind hadn't matured enough to have thought through the whole endeavor in great detail. I considered reaching out and bending a whole big chunk of a sheet back onto itself. Then I stopped. What if mom was right and it did break. I'd have to confess because the evidence of tampering would be obvious and there would be no one to blame but one of us kids.

The clothespins we had in those days were the simple wooden ones that rather looked like they had a head and two legs. The spring-type clothespins were off in the future. I carefully pried a clothespin off of the closest sheet, then I took the corner of that sheet and bent it down, rather like turning down the corner of a page in a book so as to mark the place where you left off.

SNAP. I tell you no lie. I heard the threads break. I looked at the sheet and could readily see where the threads were destroyed and I knew that once the sheet defrosted, the corner would likely fall off. I hurriedly put the sheet back on the line and replaced the clothes pin. I was so glad I'd used the corner where the pin was to do my experiment because I was pretty sure mom would think she had done the damage when she took the clothes off the line.

Mom changed the sheets on our twin beds every week. Each time I discovered clean sheets on my bed, I'd pull up the corners to see if  I had a sheet with a missing corner. I never found any. In my haste to get the experiment over with before mom returned from the store that day, I may have bent the corner of a double bed sheet. If that was the case, the evidence  would be on mom and dad's bed. I never went into their room to check for missing corners. Their bedroom was a forbidden place. How would I ever explain my presence there if I got caught, let alone the fact that the sheet corners had all been pulled up.

Those were the days of all cotton. The sheets were cotton as were the towels, the underwear, the socks, and all the dresses--unless you were a grown up. Mom had some pretty dresses she wore when they went dancing. They went somewhere to get clean. I wasn't exactly sure where, but they never got drug down to the basement or hung on the clotheslines. Do I know if clothes made of today's man-made fabrics will break if frozen? No, I don't. I can't test it out either, because ever since I was sixteen, I've lived at sea level in southern California. It doesn't freeze here. I mention this just in case you don't know.

So now that I'm past seventy, I can freely write of my disobedience. The fear of being caught disappeared long ago. But one thing I can vouch for is that when my own kids did something "just to prove a theory", I was more lenient than I might have been had it not been for breaking that sheet so long ago. So just to set the record straight, I can say my experiment proved with great accuracy that frozen fabric can break. I can also attest to the fact that you can hear frozen threads snap. What I cannot say is whether or not the broken fabric falls apart at the damaged spot once it comes to room temperature. I never wanted to ask mom if that had happened. I was curious child. Not a stupid one.

My love to all of you this wonderful season from the little old lady who's decided to come clean.

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