The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Grandmother's Washing Machine

By Donald F. Blanford © 1986

Issue: September, 1986

Like most farms in the mountains, every expense at my grandparents' was carefully budgeted. The money from every crop, egg, and extra gallon of milk had its fate assigned long in advance of its arrival.

We laugh now to hear my mother recall the turkeys - surely the dumbest birds in God's creation - that no one liked to look after. Grandmother would scold her children with a smile. "Be good to them. Those turkeys are your winter boots, you know."

I especially remember a steamy hot summer in Lee County, Virginia more than forty years ago. I was still too small to follow the men into the fields after breakfast, and I spent the hours after breakfast in the yard with the foxhound pups or under the feet of my mother and grandmother.

Every morning, as soon as the dew began to dry on the weeds, a loud call across the meadow would signal the approach of our nearest neighbor, Lizzie Castle. There had to have been a time when she wasn't old, but I never saw it. I only picture her as thin and stooped, yet pert and lively. She wore a huge grey sun bonnet and carried a wicker garden basket on one arm.

The women sat on the porch and snapped great aprons full of fresh picked green beans into a cooking pot. All summer it seemed that Grandmother Thompson talked only about the washing machine she had seen in the Sears Roebuck catalog. No matter the lack of running water, the electric agitator and wringer would be a luxurious time saver she had always dreamed about.

Even though every penny was already spoken for, Grandmother had a plan - a little white-faced calf. She had purchased her calf in the spring with money saved from the household, and she tended it each day. With every pound the calf gained, her washing machine came a little closer.

On a torrid July afternoon grandmother and I walked to Mister Nida's store to shop and pick up the mail. Not even the tiniest of breezes disturbed the leaves on the trees, and in the still air the June bugs buzzed loudly along all the fence rows. The thought of a half-mile walk in the sun each way was eased by the blackberries at the side of the road and the possibility of a cold drink at the store.

As we arrived the sky darkened, and no sooner had we started home than the rain began, so we took refuge in a neighbor's house. It was a typical summer storm in the mountains: sudden, furious, and spectacular. Thunder rattled the windows, while flashes and streaks of lightning split the sky. As suddenly as it had started, the lightening and the drenching rain stopped.

We started home again, relieved by the welcome break from the heat - until a truck pulled up beside us.

"Vinnie, there's smoke risin' from over at your place."

Uncomprehending at first, I watched her face change expression from disbelief to horror. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Grandmother began to pray out loud as we climbed into the truck and raced home. Black smoke filled the sky when we approached, but I was scared as much by Grandmother's reaction as by anything I feared I might see.

The house was intact, but the tobacco barn was ablaze with the biggest fire I had ever seen. Groups of men stood around, helplessly talking, occasionally running back from the bursts of heat as different sections of the barn went up. The thick smoke seared our nostrils while Grandmother rushed about to check on her family. Her husband, her boys, my mom, and my baby sister all were unharmed. Granddad hugged her close for a moment; his eyes expressed what he couldn't yet find the words to say.

A man walked up - I never knew his name. "We did the best we could, Mrs. Thompson. We couldn't save the barn, but your house is safe. We got a little of the stock out, but everything else is lost. All the calves are gone."

That was the end. The relief at finding every one safe, the shock of the loss of the barn, and now this. Grandmother began to wail. "Oh my washing machine. My poor washing machine!" She went to her rocking chair and sat wringing her hands in her lap, crying silently.

The barn was eventually rebuilt (complete with lightning rods), and one day Grandmother did get her washing machine from Sears Roebuck. We all laughed in later years about how Grandmother's washing machine had burned up, but it was the loving, bittersweet laughter of a shared memory rather than a joke.

Long afterward I realized how much I had learned that summer about the cruel tricks that nature can play on a farm, about the closeness of life where every penny is important, and about the faith required to pick up and rebuild after a loss.