The Clothesline Lady
Anne Lawrence dedicates her retirement to encouraging others to hang out with their clothes.
by Shelley Daily
From the April, 2014 issue
It all started with a photograph. The year was 1966, and the photo shows Lawrence's mother smiling as she leans over her back porch railing with a full clothesline swaying behind her in the breeze. "It was, and still is, an amazing revelation," Lawrence says of the photo that she rediscovered about twenty years ago, after her mother's death. "I realized that helping my mother hang clothes on the line was one of the best memories of my childhood and one of the few activities that would bring my mother joy."
Lawrence, now seventy, has since amassed a huge collection of clothesline and laundry memorabilia--paintings, poems, photos, antique laundry items, books, and more than a dozen binders on the history and culture of the clothesline. Four years ago, she retired from her job as a senior administrator at Brandeis University, moved to Ann Arbor to be close to her daughter's family, and transformed herself from clothesline hobbyist to advocate.
"My daughter encouraged me to give a talk about it, and one thing led to another," she says. Toting roller bags of clothesline items, Lawrence has since spoken to dozens of groups at senior and retirement centers, memory loss groups, faculty women's groups, antiquarian organizations, and gardening clubs, "reigniting memories" of the clothesline while also encouraging everyone she meets to get back outside to hang their clothes and reconnect with others.
"The poor clothesline has fallen into such disrepute," she says. For her, the clothesline recalls a time when "life was simpler, and we let nature do the work"--but others often associate it with poverty, low class, and poor property values. Most condo and homeowner associations ban clotheslines for aesthetic reasons, and Lawrence says that "people have even been hauled off to jail" because they didn't pay fines associated with their unlawful use of clotheslines. In an ironic twist, Lawrence herself lives in a condo that does not allow clotheslines.
"It's actually a good thing because it fuels me," she says.
She's approached her association several times on the topic but says because of the way the condos' backyards come together and because of the large mowers used to cut grass, she understands the ban. Instead, she uses a variety of drying racks and a basement clothesline.
At a recent lunchtime talk at the Jewish Community Center, she invites a half-dozen seniors to close their eyes and think of a clothesline memory. One recalls the family laundry wringer and the stern warnings she received to not put her fingers near it. Another woman remembers that hanging the wash was a teenage chore she really didn't mind doing.
Hanging clothes is a total sensory experience, Lawrence says. "It's the unmistakable aroma of fresh air and sunshine." It also "was the best therapy before Oprah or Dr. Phil came along," as family members and neighbors gathered to chat near the lines; a "total workout--from carrying the baskets to stretching movements to the Zen-like meditation; [and] one solution to reducing our carbon footprint."
Lawrence considers herself a feminist and admits that "it's hard to argue with those who say that laundry is a form of drudgery." She sees her own daughter with a full-time job and two young children deal with "the endless piles of laundry." But still, she says, there's only a six-and-a-half-minute difference between hanging up a load of laundry and putting it in the dryer--although she does admit that open-air drying takes longer.
Lawrence says it's rare to find Ann Arborites who hang clothes outside--she's constantly on the lookout--but she urges people to give it a try this month. April 19 is National Hanging Out Day, organized by national advocacy group Project Laundry List. The group leads the "Right to Dry" movement that encourages lawmakers to introduce legislation that protects the use of clotheslines.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]
On March 27, 2014, Anne Lawrence wrote:
If you wish to contact Anne regarding future presentations on clothesline nostalgia, she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
On April 17, 2014, kbovitz wrote:
There is nothing like the fresh smell of clothes and bedding dried outside. I still hang the bedding and anything else I can outside, weather permitting.