I hated doing the laundry. I hated it far more than I hated cleaning the toilet, although I was squeamish, and far more than I hated clipping the hedge although I suffered from hay fever. I hated the smell of washing powder, and the feel of wet clothes, and I swore that if I could have afforded it, I would have donated my clothes to a charity shop, and bought new ones – or even different second hand ones from a charity shop. As it was, although nobody commented on it (which doesn’t mean they didn’t notice it!) I wore clothes until they were slightly grimy. I washed my smalls in the basin in the bathroom. I didn’t mind that. It was just a chore to be done, like any other.
This is where you’re supposed to say “but it wasn’t to the point of obsession”. But it was. Or very near. Okay, eventually, I did get round to doing it. But I never got it into perspective. I didn’t talk about it much, or, indeed, at all. Or a colleague would never have given me a Christmas present of a scented candle that bore the name Clean Linen. On her insistence, we lit it at work so we could all “have a smell of it”. To my relief, it didn’t smell much of clean linen – in all honestly, would anyone who didn’t share my phobia have wanted that authentic smell permeating their house? – only a slight scent that couldn’t decide whether it was pungent or sweet, but just the name was enough.
I even had nightmares about it. Now let me explain what I mean by nightmares. I don’t mean some strange vision of my being whirled round in a washing machine. That would have been better! I think when you have that kind of nightmare, at least sometimes, part of your brain still registers that it’s bizarre and a dream. No. I’m talking about dreams where there’s a pile of washing that never diminishes, and a smell of powder that just gets stronger.
Another thing you’re supposed to say is that a health scare puts things in perspective, and that when I discovered a lump in my breast it should have made me say that I’d have washed clothes night and day to make it go away. Reluctantly, because I’ve always been a “prefer not to know” sort of person, I went to the doctors. I was told it was almost certainly just a harmless cyst, the vast majority were, but of course they had to do a mammogram and other tests. They also raised the question about hereditary factors. I’d heard about such things on TV and read about them, and I replied, truthfully, that my Mother had never so much as had a breast cancer scare, and that I didn’t have a sister. I know they were right to use the C word openly, yet part of me would have preferred it if they hadn’t. “I hate to push this, and the hereditary ones are rare anyway,” the doctor said, “But what about aunts …. either side of the family ….”
“Mum’s an only child, and Dad only has brothers.”
“Grandmothers? I’m really sorry to ask these questions, Alma.”
“It’s okay.” Well, her asking the questions was, in itself, okay. “On Dad’s side, I’m pretty sure there isn’t any history. But on Mum’s – well, she was adopted.”
“Ah. And at that time, I’m presuming, a closed adoption.”
The doctor determinedly made light of it. “It’s not ideal we don’t know, but don’t worry too much about it.” I knew she was kind and we got on well, but I was getting a bit tired of being told not to worry about things.
Obviously I mentioned it to Mum. I was expecting a reply on the lines of it was a shame, and she wished there was some way we could find out. But she had a very strange expression. “I still don’t know if this gives us any way of tracing the medical history, but it’s more than time you knew, and I should have told you before, but I kept putting it off. You’re right – it was a closed adoption. But I did end up accidentally finding some things out.”
“And you’re telling me because you think I’m about to pop my clogs?”
“Don’t talk twaddle, please,” she said, determinedly acerbic, but with a hint of a tremor in her voice, and I felt guilty about my flippancy. She did the best thing she could, and returned it. “Anyway, only the good die young. You may want to sit down, and that’s nothing to do with a lump, it’s because it’s a long story, and some of it is – distressing. “
My biological grandmother had been called Teresa – “And that genuinely is all I know,” Mum said. She was Irish, and from a very devout, traditional family. It would be easy to condemn them, as Mum remarked, but even though it was still well within living memory, in some ways it might as well have been centuries ago. When she was 16, Teresa “got in trouble”. “Some of this is hearsay,” Mum went on, “And there are a great many things we DON’T know and probably never will. Not even if it was consensual or the lad forced himself on her – or it was that grey area in between that I know we’re supposed to think doesn’t exist.”
“It could have been a grown man, not a lad,” I said.
“But – I don’t think most people thought so. And – again this is to some extent someone who heard someone else, but it seems that contrary to the general – I don’t want to say cliché, not when such human suffering is involved, but you know what I mean – though Teresa’s father was furious and felt let down, she was a bit of a daddy’s girl – or a “dadda’s girl” as they might have said – and he was prepared to give her a chance. But her mother would have none of it and disowned her.”
I had an idea of what was coming, and did not want it to be true, but could not see any alternative. Teresa was sent to one of those mother and baby homes, the so-called Magdalen homes, or Magdalen laundries that lasted into the second half of the twentieth century.
“She gave birth to a baby girl.”
“To you,” I said, simply, stating the obvious and yet it seemed both profound and unreal.
“This is – one heck of a lot to take in, Mum.”
“And you don’t want to hear me saying that I know exactly what you mean, though I do. I – don’t know, and perhaps I don’t want to know, if Teresa sobbed and clung to me or if she was quite relieved. But I was adopted by your Gran and Grandpa and, I know you have a right not to but, I would – so love you to carry on thinking of them as that.”
“I will, and gladly,” I said, and this time the lump was in my throat.
“Don’t think it – hasn’t occurred to me that this phobia of yours about laundry could be some kind of genetic memory. I don’t dismiss such things out of hand. Oh, your face, Alma!” despite the gravity of the situation all round she laughed, and I joined in, thinking I didn’t know why and then realising I did. Of course she’d known about it, or at any rate, had a good idea.
“Perhaps there’s more than one genetic memory. You never wanted to be anything else but a teacher, and I heard that after working her fingers to the bone she managed to go to teacher training college – Normal School, as they called it, and qualified. But –beyond that and, yes, even if she’s still alive, I don’t know. “
I’m old fashioned or traditional enough to think that at least some stories ought to have a beginning, a middle and an end, though the boundaries between them are fuzzy in the extreme. Well, this isn’t the end. It turned out that my lump was benign, and I learnt the true meaning of the word relief.
I’ll never like doing the laundry. Apart from anything else I’m so used to not liking it, it would feel strange! But I also know that I am lucky to have modern equipment to do it with, and to have hands that are not red and raw, and a back that does not ache – and to know that a girl called Teresa who did have hands that were red and raw, and did have a back that ached, did such work, and survived, and achieved her ambition. I don’t, and cannot think of her as my grandmother. Or not in the regular sense. And I’d still never buy a Clean Linen scented candle. But it has been tamed. It is in its place!