Last month’s unusually cold weather reminded me of a winter in the early 1940s when I was in first or second grade. We lived only about five or six blocks from school and we always walked there and back, twice a day, as we went home for lunch. Our school system didn’t have a hot lunch program then, though a few kids brought sack lunches, especially in the winter time. At our house, the noon meal was the main meal of the day and Mother wanted to make sure we got a good, hot meal, so we always ate at home.
That one winter was exceptionally cold and snowy, and each morning we were duly bundled into wool snow pants, snug buckle galoshes, mittens on a cord threaded through the sleeves of our coats, ear muffs, and itchy wool headscarves tied under our chins and tucked into the back of our coat collars. By the time all this insulation had been assembled and approved by Mother, we were sweating and eager to get outdoors where we could cool off. We usually cooled down about halfway to school and were glad to get inside the schoolhouse. At recess time, we donned all those garments again (the school had a rule that we had to dress as warmly for recess as we had been when we arrived, never mind if the temperature had risen 20 degrees).
Before Dad left for work each day, he made his way across the back yard to check out the temperature on his outdoor thermometer and signal to Mother who was watching from the kitchen window. Most mornings during that winter, he would hold up one to 10 fingers and point up or down– usually down– and trudge off to his pickup. Dad’s pickup sported chains on the back tires for most of the winter, as no one plowed the snow off the town’s streets at that time and the chains, he felt, made it possible for him to navigate just about any of the streets, no matter what the conditions.
Since we went home for lunch and had both morning and afternoon recesses, we struggled in or out of those heavy outer garments eight times every day. Our 15-minute recess was rarely canceled because of severe weather, and we often arrived back in our classroom with our mittens and snow pants soaked with melting snow. These would be hung to dry on the steam pipes that ran, four deep, all around the outside walls of the room. Long before the days of modern synthetics, our winter garments were usually wool, with a few mittens made of rubberized canvas which was supposed to be waterproof, and I can still remember the smell of hot, wet wool and that peculiar hot rubber aroma.
Except for unusually mild winters, Mother dried the laundry in the house on rope lines attached to metal hooks Dad had screwed into window and door frames in the kitchen, dining and living rooms.
Monday was always laundry day, except when it came on Christmas or other holidays, and every Monday that winter we came home from school to a steamy house filled with the aroma of bleach, laundry soap– and soup. There’d be a folding drying rack, draped with diapers, dish towels, and stockings, placed over the big heat register in the kitchen. Dad’s work pants and shirts, towels, our print school dresses, blouses, pajamas and underwear hung damply above the sofa, end-tables and footstools in the living room. They would probably still be there in the morning, as things dried slowly in the house without the aid of sunshine and breezes. All those drying clothes added refreshing moisture to the dry winter air in the house and collected on the windows in fantastic patterns of lacy ferns and billowing ostrich feathers.
Laundry day was also soup day. Mother would start the day by filling the Maytag washer tub with hot water, soap and bleach, and toss in the first load of not-so-dirty whites. While that was washing, she’d season the noontime pot roast and brown it in the big iron skillet, add water and a lid and start it slowly roasting in the oven. After she had rinsed and hung the first batch of clothes, she started another load and peeled potatoes and carrots to add to the roast later along with onions and bay leaves. After the noon meal, the leftover roast, vegetables and gravy went into her big aluminum soup kettle where they simmered for most of the afternoon while she shifted slow-drying garments to better locations and rolled up those that were just damp enough for ironing the next day. By suppertime, she’d added fat noodles or fluffy dumplings to the soup kettle and the drying rack in the kitchen was festooned with our snow-damp jackets, snow-pants, scarves and mittens– they’d be dry by morning, ready for wearing or not, depending on Dad’s weather report.