Monday we wash our clothes.
Tuesday we iron.
Wednesday we scrub.
Thursday we mend.
Friday we clean.
Saturday we bake.
Sunday we go to church.
Ma taught me how. She taught me how on Mondays, we wash the clothes. On Tuesdays, comes the ironin’. Our clean clothes, they got to be kept damp and cool, and then ironed on Tuesdays so as not to mildew. It’s either that or wet ’em down good before hittin’ ’em with the flat iron. Hold the iron down firm but don’t let a hot iron burn nor leave a mark.
When Ma died, I become the Ma. I have the memory that what Pa and me had to do was, we lifted yet another dead baby out of Ma and then what was left of our family, all of us together, we had to bury mother the next day. This time we didn’t just have to bury what would ‘a been a little brother or sister. No, this time, we buried both mother and child.
When she died, my Ma had born ten children. Five boys lived to grow up, and me, the girl. Come a Monday, Ma and me together had always washed the clothes for Pa and the boys. Come ev’ry day, no matter the day, we’d all of us get up at dawn. Ma and me had us biscuits to get up fresh from scratch. Then Ma would hand out the lunch buckets. Pa would be off to the mines, and we children off to whatever schoolin’ there was around here, but then Ma died, and I become the Ma.
Mondays, I’d been taught, is always the day for washin’. There’s the water to be drawn for four separate tubs each. One tub is for washin’, one is for rinsin’, one is for the bluin’, and last, comes the starchin’. All that water has to be made to boil, come a hot summer sun or a freezin’ snow. Even as a girl, I’d already learnt to build up the fire and keep it hot. You have to punch and scrub each set a’ clothes in the first washtub. Punch and scrub. Then rinse and ring in the second. A dip in the bluin’ is what keeps our whites white. The next step was always to starch all the collars on shirts. Starch any good clothes. When I was a young girl, I was hardly tall enough to hang the work shirts and overalls high up on the lines. Neighbor women would laugh, but they’d come help me.
Coal mines are laid in and around all these parts. When Ma died, I remembered how everything has to be ironed on Tuesdays. And I mean everything. Shirts, sheets, pillowcases. Plus everyday there’d still be the biscuits and cornbread to be got up, plus our three meals a day. Pa could afford mostly beans, but sometimes I could add a slatherin’ ‘a bacon. Some rabbit or squirrel. I’d make and pour everybody hot coffee. Just like Ma who’d always said, “Our men never see the sun, and we women never see the end of it!”
At fourteen, the story around here is always the same—boys become miners and girls marry ‘em. Each a’ my brothers become a miner. They dig up black coal, and breathe in black dust. Breathe in coal dust way down deep. When Ma died, I become their Ma. Ev’ry mornin’, I’d pack up a lunch bucket for all a’ my men headin’ down into the mines.
Come every Wednesday, what I’d learned was, to scrub the house. Our company house had three rooms, and you was to scrub everything. Scrub the company’s shelves, the cupboards. There’d always be dirt, dark ash on my rag. Leastways as years went by, the company give us a floor. I’d sweep the company’s floor clear and then I’d mop. We had us a window, so I’d scrub what panes we had. Then take the strongest soap to the outhouse. Our family shared it with others, and ev’ry woman, in turn, took her turn cleanin’ it.
The wonder was, not that Ma died so young, but that she could bear up under so many for so very long. When my Ma died, though, come every evenin’ since, I become the one listenin’ for the whistle. There’s a whistle at shift’s end, meanin’ possibly none a’ my men killed dead on this particular day. Dead from fire, gas, or a downright explosion. Limbs blowed apart. I’d breathe a might easier then. Pa never married again. He drank some. Like my mother before me, I sat by the window braidin’ my hair every night.
Because Ma’d died, I was the onliest girl from these parts didn’t marry come fourteen. Come eighteen, though, and all the boys up and out on their own, I consented to marry me, my miner. Someone my brothers had up and dragged home. Thursdays has always been the day for mendin’. And there’s always ragged, deep tears in the pit clothes, the work clothes that’s the dirtiest and the heaviest to lift and to carry. When Ma died, I’d took up her thimble. My fingers blistered, pokin’ that needle in and through, pullin’ it through and back out from rough cloth. And why, it seems like I’ve knowed how to darn me a sock all my life. Can’t even remember how I learned.
As a girl, I’d had to steal me the time to needlepoint a pillowcase or two, a spread. I’d filled my bed linens fulla embroidered flowers and leaves. I decorated hankies for my own hope chest. A lady from the church, she even helped me learn how to quilt. When my marriage had finally come, why I was the one made me up my own weddin’ dress. Then soon after, I found myself stitchin’ together my own children’s clothes–little shirts and pants, or I’d sew up a simple dress, but I’d add me on a bow and a sash. I taught myself how to put in the buttonholes. When Ma died, I simply become the Ma. Like I’d always been a Ma. Come my marriage, you couldn’t called me, not willin’ nor able.
I lost some a’ my children, same as Ma, but not all. Fridays now, I teach my own girl, Fridays is the day we make things clean and fresh. We straighten up odds and ends. Change the bedclothes. Shake out the feather pillows. Do the light dustin’. Mine’s a good girl. She fluffs out curtains and cushions. Scours out the potato bin. She sweeps cobwebs from each and every corner a’ the house.
When my last baby died in childbirth, I told my husband–no more babies. I told him, you just take yourself on down the road for your good times. When my own Ma died right along with her last one, she wasn’t all that old, I told him. Me, I planned to live.
On Saturdays, I’d learned well, comes the bakin’. We don’t just bake the day’s biscuits and breads then, but the pies, special cakes and sweet things. My girl and me make up whatever the season will allow–apple pie or cherry, peach cobbler, or a sweet ginger cake. Whatever comes to mind and we have provisions for. Why maybe my daughter and me, we can even get ourselves up an angel cake! Since my own Momma died, seems like I been forever a Ma, and I mean to live to touch me a grandbaby. A next generation.
One of my own boys is already strappin’ and strong. Why he’s already growed an’ gone down in the mines an is thinkin’ on getting’ a family of his own. Another boy wanted bad to get away, so he’s off fightin’, but he’s promised me letters. My girl, I’ve kept in school, so she can read letters to me easy. If I die, though, I’ve warned her, you’ll have to be the Ma. My daughter sews hard against her own wedding day. She embroiders roses.
On Sundays comes our church. My girl and me get our family there and into a pew. Me, thinkin’ always, though how my Ma’s been the one with me, day in and day out. Come a close-by death or a day’s hard life, it’s to Ma my prayers fly. So I’ve taught my own daughter too, how not to bow her head, but lift up her face when she prays. Lift your face up, daughter, and believe in new days. To everything, there is a season. Have faith in the dawn.