Alyce Faye Bragg: Recalling the smell of washdays in winter

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The fog on the hill today is obscuring Pilot Knob, bringing to mind the old saying that, “fog on the hill brings water to the mill.” The ground is soggy and muddy, but then we’ve always considered February as our muddiest month. It is a real blessing when the March wind comes and dries up the mud that this month brings.

We have reports the robins have returned from the south, although we have not seen them yet. Some hardy robins spend the winter here in our West Virginia hills, but the ones who have migrated to a warmer climate return when the ground is bringing forth earthworms. It is a pretty good sign of coming spring when the robins return.

Last week when I caught a whiff of warm, steamy air, I was reminded of how our sense of smell can trigger memories. It immediately brought back memories of washday at home when I was a kid. Washday in the winter was a real hardship, as the water had to be carried from a pitcher pump, heated on the gas cook stove, and poured into the wringer washer.

Mom always brought her water to a boil, and when we walked home from school for lunch on a cold, winter day, the house would have that steamy smell that was peculiar to washday. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but a clean wet odor that permeated the whole house.

At the time, I never realized how hard it was on Mom to do our laundry in the winter, but after I began keeping house myself, it really dawned on me.

Hanging wet clothes out on the clothesline was another winter hardship. The only clothes dryer we had was sunshine, and at that season, it was winter wind. I remember how the clothes would freeze almost as soon as she hung them up, and taking them down after they freeze-dried was another chore.

They would have to be pried off the line by sheer fingertip labor, and brought inside to finish drying. That was how it was in the “olden” days!

She would pause in her washing long enough to cook dinner (not lunch) for 10 or 11. I can remember the pinto beans she cooked sometimes with macaroni (it was good, and it went farther) and sometimes it was bean dumplings. It seems that we had dumplings cooked in a lot of our food. When you are cooking for so many, it was a sure way to extend the helpings!

I loved the blackberry dumplings and the tomato dumplings. Mom used to thicken canned blackberries, sweeten them well, and we would eat it with real cow butter and hot biscuits. We called it “flummery” and could demolish a half-gallon at a time. We didn’t have fancy food, but plenty of real country “vittles” that filled the stomach.

Suppertime brought again the same big meal, sometimes with huge bowls of hot, buttered potatoes, cornbread and canned pork. We always kept a milk cow, and sometimes two, so we had all the milk that we could drink. Mom made cottage cheese that I still dream about, and had to churn every other day or so. It’s no wonder she was exhausted at the end of washday.

That warm, steamy smell was also reminiscent of Daddy sweeping the floor at home. The road here was a dirt road then, and during “mud” month, much of it was carried in on big and little feet.

We had narrow matched flooring that had never known the touch of a varnish brush, and the mud was carried in and dried. When we swept the floor, it would rise up in a suffocating cloud.

Daddy couldn’t tolerate this, so he would take a pan of warm water and sprinkle it on the floor before he swept it. I can still smell that dusty, steamy odor that rose up as he swept. He always swept for Mom on Sunday morning as she was engaged in getting seven children ready for church.

Hot lunch programs were unheard of when I was in grade school, and if you didn’t live close enough to the school to walk home, you had to pack a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. I didn’t mind the walk home, even in the winter when freezing wind blew around you, and fingers and feet would grow numb. There was that rush of warm, welcome air as you opened the door, and the good fragrance of dinner on the table.

When I started high school, I was truly thankful for the cafeteria and the hot lunches that were served. I worked in the cafeteria my freshman year for $1 a week and a free lunch, and then the manager told me (she couldn’t look me in the eye) that she could no longer pay me. I still got my free lunch. We discovered later that she was in trouble for embezzling money, so that’s where my one dollar went!

I want to dedicate this poem to all the working mothers, who not only hold a job, but have the housewifely duties, too. I can remember how my own mother put in such long hours. Sometimes in the summer, I would wake up and see her still minding a pressure canner of garden vegetables at two o’clock in the morning. May the good Lord bless all our working mothers.

The Hard Working Mothers

Only one day is given,

Only 24 hours is spared,

To the hard working mother

Whose burden was never shared.

The hard working mother

Never sleeps or rests,

Pushing until light falls,

And pulling until day breaks.

The hard working mother

Is the ice in the fire.

Yet keeps moving with pride in her step,

And motivation in her heart.

The hard working mother is like water,

Always taken for granted until needed,

Used every day yet not noticed,

Takes different forms, but is never awarded.

The hard working mother ...

Gets tired and frustrated,

Gives love and compassion,

Always needed, never replaced.

Only one day is given,

Only 24 hours is spared,

To the hard working mother,

Whose burden was never shared.

Contact Alyce Faye Bragg at or write to 2556 Ovapa Road, Ovapa, WV 25164.

Funerals for Thursday, May 28, 2020

Belcher, Drema - 1 p.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Bell, Ray - Noon, Brookside Ministries, Mt. Carbon.

Foster, Connie - 7:45 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

Gray, Glenna - 1 p.m., Dotson-Simpson Memorial Cemetery, Keslers-Cross Lanes.

Hall, Leslie - 10 a.m., Mt. Olive Cemetery, Hurricane.

Horn, Roger - 11 a.m., Valley View Memorial Park, Hurricane.

Myers, Joy - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Ruffin Sr., Willie - 1 p.m., Grandview Memorial Park, St. Albans.