Mythical Creatures Blocks from the shop at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (right)
There are many other things my grandmothers taught me. I remember learning how to hang out wet laundry on our clothes reel, beginning with small items in the center, and working around the circle so that large things like sheets and towels were on the longer, outside lines. You had to be sure you gave each item a good shake before pinning it up. Shirts were to be hung upside down by the side seams. Pants were hung from the waist unless you put them on a pants stretcher. You had to remember to go out and bring in the things to be ironed while they were still damp, or if you wanted to wait and do your ironing later, you had to let them dry completely, and then sprinkle them a half hour before ironing. You never sprinkled them unless you were sure you would be able to iron them, because damp things would 'sour' if they sat too long. And when you took down the dry laundry, you worked from the outside lines in, folding as you went, dropping the items into the laundry basket. It was easiest to fold sheets while they were on the line, so that they didn't drag on the mossy bricks beneath the reel.
I loved hanging out laundry. It was an outdoor operation, and I was an outdoor girl.
John French Sloan, Sun and Wind on the Roof, 1915. Oil on canvas, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Sometimes my grandmothers offered conflicting advice about the things they taught me. One grandmother swore that any dish with cooked tomatoes in it needed a pinch of sugar to "sweeten the acid". The other one thought that was rubbish. One grandmother loved to repeat her mother's rule for cleaning jewelry: "oil your opals and boil your diamonds." The other quietly suggested cold water and ammonia for the diamonds, and a soft cloth to polish the opals, if indeed one were fortunate enough to have any. One felt that buttered soda crackers served in a soup bowl of hot milk was the perfect meal for a sick child no matter what the ailment. The other was sure that milk would "add to the congestion" of a cold.
Most of the time, however, my grandmothers agreed with each other. I doubt that there has ever been a pair of mothers-in-law who lived together in greater harmony. They left me with a store of knowledge, some practical:
- Serve from the left, remove from the right.
- For a cough, mix hot tea, honey & lemon juice (my mother would sneak in some bourbon).
- When you sew a button onto heavy fabric like an overcoat, put a matchstick under the button before you sew, and pull it out afterward. That way the button will have some play so that it won't bind as it passes through the thick fabric of the buttonhole.
- Witch Hazel patted on any kind of bump makes it feel better.
- Prunes work.
… and some just generally worth knowing:
- Children love stories of the past, especially their family's past.
- A hand laid gently on a shoulder can be like a benediction.
- Little nonsense poems and songs delight, and they stick with you forever.
- Grandparents are almost never too busy to read aloud to you.
Of course, my grandmothers weren't the only ones with good advice. The other day, my friend Pam and I were discussing how best to get along with someone you don't really like, but must deal with from time to time. "As my grandmother always says," she told me, "you can be nice and not get thick."
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