Peak housewife era, when television taught that
women were supposed to wear heels and a smile
to vacuum, arrange doilies, make molded
strawberry salad from a Good Housekeeping recipe.
If you didn’t like it, you still had to abide it.
But she enjoyed laundry, even when she was young,
bent over a zinc tub, scrubbing clothes out on a washboard
alongside her own grandmother, who used to give her
a glass of beer as they worked (later bouts
of alcoholism notwithstanding). She always said
she associated the scents of hops and brewer’s yeast
with her grandmother, and decades later,
that washboard still hung on her kitchen wall.
When she got her first electric machine, she still
hung everything out to dry, lighter fabrics semi-transparent
in the sundrenched yard, aromatic with pepper
and tomato plants, her sundress semi-transparent
as she turns, bends, lifts the fabrics to the line.
She either didn’t notice or didn’t think anything of
a wasp perched black and gold on the head of a clothespin,
like the old absurdity about pinheads and dancing angels,
only this one was, at best, the avenging variety, and,
at worst, batting for the other team,
with the infernal whine of its drained stained-glass wings,
that first sting white-hot as judgment, and they just
keep coming: the nest in the hollow metal post
of the clothesline, gray honeycomb scarcely visible
through the opening, and everything is light light light
until she passes out.
When she wakes, there will be ice packs for the swelling,
baking soda pastes, her then-husband with tweezers
to pluck out the stingers that broke off in her skin.
I was always amazed that she could go on after that,
hanging her laundry out to dry right up until 1987
when her last husband left her, and her demons
began to overrun her skull. Yet, somehow,
she never stopped finding godliness in clean sheets,
in the scents of bleach and fabric softener.
These are the scents I associate with her.
It took me a while to realize why her demons won.
There was no joy in her life that they
couldn’t worm their way into, plant
their insidious nest, and wait to swarm.