When I was a teenager I was sent to live with the Nuns. Well, it was the 70’s, NZ, and I was a pregnant convent girl from a big Catholic family with a sick mum. This is where bad girls ended up, they said.
The Convent I was sent to was beautiful, old, fragrant, with wide corridors and huge sash windows, high ceilings, airy rooms and verandahs, enormous flower and vegetable gardens and was run by thrifty Nuns with jangling keys at their waists, who, as well as Bad Girls who they shuffled down the Adoption Path, took in washing from local private hospitals.
The laundry was the hub of the Convent. It was huge, with enormous tables for folding, huge wicker laundry baskets on wheels, entire rooms for stacking folded linen, big industrial washing machines, a drying room and an enormous mangle. Busy with silent rabbit like girls at work. The mangle was so wide it could iron a full length girl from side to side. Flat as a paua fritter. But that was the warm part of the laundry, you kind of worked up to that side as your pregnancy advanced. The side where the laundry was received, sorted and rinsed was where we began, it was cold, right there where the trucks pulled in and out. Always cold. And sorting the linen in the sluice room was the worst of the jobs. Some of it should have been rinsed in the hospitals. We never hardened to it.
The rinsing girls on the cold side had cracks in their hands that never healed from the cold water, nails always waterlogged, ripped and bleeding, infected cuts that never gave up and to this day they go white and numb at the threat of chilly weather. If it is terribly cold I am left using my hands like paddles. Our shoulders were always in pain. Don’t feel bad though, due to my .. um.. high spirits I was often sent out to work with Sister Delphina in the gardens. Sometimes I was sent to the library, where the girls did their correspondence school work in the evenings – to think about my sins! Well that WAS a hardship. However I am wandering off the subject.
At of the outdoor end of laundry, near where the vans brought in their loads of bloody linen, leaking hideousness through the canvas bags which we rinsed and washed as well, was a small alcove. This is where the girls who were living at the Convent came to wash their own clothes on Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon and Sunday were our days off you see. The big laundry was silent. The nuns at prayer. And if you wanted your washing to be dry for ironing by Sunday afternoon you washed on Saturday.
In this alcove with its cold concrete floor, and high iron crossed windows with jasmine creeping in from the nun’s garden, divided by a short bevilled glass wall from the laundry rinsing rooms were two big spotless concrete tubs and a long stone bench. Above one tub were two taps, one copper and one steel. One hot and one cold. Hot. The joy of it. I still love to hold my hands in a tub of hot water. Above the other tub was one cold tap. Between them was a small mangle. We washed our clothes by hand. It was Saturday. We were still in one piece, our babies bobbing gently in our bellies. And we chattered a mile a minute. As disconnected as any teenagers. Hauling our fat pregnant selves up onto the benches, dropping our slippers and swinging our bare feet, helping with each others washing, pushing them all through the mini mangle between the tubs, trying to jam each others fingers between the rollers,(watch out for your hair, watch out !) babies having babies. Dragging our heavy baskets of wrung out dresses and nighties and aprons across to the long empty clothes lines surrounded in heady lavender hedges, and we hid amongst the washing, giggling teenage giggles, hanging our scented colourful clothes out to dry with little wooden pegs, letting our faces drift into the wet soapy smells. The colour of them an afront to the white weekday sheets. Young and strong, steeped in a sadness we never discussed. A sadness that demanded silliness. And one of my strongest scented memories of this period was the laundry soap.
The soap was soap.
Now let me tell you about the soap.
We will digress shortly for a moment. All the housework was done by the girls as well. Only our ‘side’ mind you. The Nuns cleaned their own. We had a long wing of our own, with many bedrooms. My job was to clean and polish the endless wide beautiful corridors, the visitors parlours and the dining hall, all wide planked native wood and brass at the doors. One of my friends who I never saw again, this often being the way of these friendships forged in hardship, had the job of cleaning the two big bathrooms. Doling out clean towels and soap (carefully counted out by the nun with the keys) as she went. Each bathroom had 6 toilets, 6 hand basins and 3 showers. And in the hand-basins and showers there was home-made soap. Made by a Sister no-one ever saw. And when the soap was a slither left abandoned in a soap saucer, my friend’s job was to collect all the slithers, rinse them, pop them into a big battered tin pot, fill the pot with water, boil it for a wee while, then take the pot with its old worn ladle, down the path and across to the Laundry and set it in the Girl’s Wash House ready for Saturday afternoon. This is what we washed our clothes with. Good soap. And our clothes smelt lovely.
Of course I still cannot bear to throw away the last slithers of soap. And now that I am making my own soap, not only do we have the slithers but I also have the endy bits and cuttings off the soap cakes. And wasting it would be dreadful.
It all gets tossed into my soap pot and cooked up. I often add a few extra drops of lavender as a treat. If you want a formula, maybe a pound of soap to a gallon of water. But it is an excellent laundry liquid, especially for woolens. Best in a jar with a lid, using the ladle to dole it out. It does not pour well!
And when it comes to dirty dogs after a day in the fields with the mud and melting snow, soap is a wonderful thing.
Both dogs are trained to stand in the shower and be hosed down, then toweled off before they can sit in front of the fire at night. They do it. But with studied ill grace.
You all have a wonderful day.
Your friend on the farmy,