The brownish soup of suds and fabric steams on the woodstove, adding a note of washing soda to the winter cabin atmosphere of dog and ashes smells. I heave the heavy pot off the stove onto the floor and swing our toilet plunger into action – the only kind of action it sees since our outhouse “plumbing” is impossible to plug. You can buy plungers especially designed for doing laundry by hand, but I find the good old rubber bell works just fine.
With gentle farting noises it sucks the increasingly dirty water through the fabric, dislodging the grime. This is the relaxed … no, I can’t bring myself to call it “fun” … part of doing laundry in the winter. I wring out as much water as I can, and now there’s no way around the rinse cycle anymore. Cycle because of its cyclical nature: mainly the grunting back and forth between lake and cabin with a bucket in my hand. I pour water and pieces of ice from hacking open the hole on the lake over the laundry, squish the clothing around, wring it, and so on and so forth. Repeat five or six times.
When the rinse water comes out clear follows the tricky part. At -10°C (15°F) and colder the sodden pile of laundry becomes increasingly reluctant to part from the rinse tub and indeed, each item from the other. Longjohns cling to socks like Velcro and shirts stick to the walls of the rinse tub, giving way to my progressively more hectic tugging with a sucking sigh.
One more time I wring each item, faster and faster, before I drape it over the line, the fabric freezing in my hands. Water drips off the dangling ends in slow motion, congealing into icicles before my eyes. As always, in the end I lose the struggle to hang the laundry over the line in such way that one side of the item won’t freeze to the other, making it impossible to remove before it the weather warms. Laundry pins would come in handy, I think as I have been thinking for 11 winters. Thoughts that have yet to result in making or buying laundry pins.
Of course the laundry won’t dry out there. In the winter our laundry line turns into something like an extra closet, a storage space from which I bring in shirts and pants, socks and longjohns bit by bit, snapping the icicles off outside the cabin door. The frozen clothing always looks as if it would prefer to stay outside: shirts stick their stiff arms mutely towards their still hanging companions and refuse to lie meekly in my arms. I wrestle them through the cabin door and fold them over the drying lines behind our stoves, where they begin to drip and sag.
It’s only when they’re finally dry that I feel happy about the whole procedure. I sneak little whiffs of clean-smelling clothes aroma as I put them away in the closet, avoiding thoughts of the already growing new mountain of dirty laundry.