When Harry and I married, I became the daughter Helen and Harry Shannon, Sr. did not have. We had become close friends during the three years Harry and I dated. After church on Sunday we went to his home for dinner. I fondly remember playing Scrabble and watching Ed Sullivan on the new black and white television Harry bought for them.
While his mother washed the dishes, I dried them and we shared stories about our families. I learned that she and her two sisters and six brothers grew up on a farm in Augusta County, not far from my home.
“Bess [her older sister] did the cooking and I did the cleaning. Chesley [the third sister] was the baby,” she said. “Folks said my husband might not have anything to eat, but he would surely have a clean house.”
Helen became an excellent cook – one taste of her macaroni and cheese, vegetable soup or coconut pie was proof of that. But “clean house” was an understatement. The sun that nourished the pink begonias on the window sill above the kitchen sink shone through sparkling windows. The small kitchen table, where she served the four of us always wore a freshly ironed cloth.
Washing and ironing were tasks relegated to the basement. She soaked the clothes in a galvanized tub before they were transferred to the Maytag washer. Stubborn stains were treated with Octagon soap and rubbed vigorously on a washboard. She turned the shirt pockets inside out to remove lint accumulated there with a toothbrush.
On sunny days, she hung her wash on a clothesline in the back yard where the wind billowed the sheets while the bright sun rendered them dazzling white. When Mondays were rainy, she carried the heavy baskets of wet clothing to the attic to dry. Once all the laundry chores were over, she scoured the basement floor with a broom and the sudsy water. After more than thirty years this polished the concrete until it appeared to be waxed.
I know all these details because we lived less than a block away for the first two years of our marriage, and I did my weekly laundry at the Shannon home. I must admit I no longer follow all the steps she taught me, and I’m sure my wash is not as bright as it was in those bygone days.
Other advice I continue to use. Her homemade cleaner needs only three ingredients: ammonia, vinegar and soda, added to a gallon of hot water. I find it works better than many of the expensive products on the market. It is versatile, safe, cleans fingerprints from walls and appliances and leaves windows clear and shining.
Mrs. Shannon taught me to turn collars on dress shirts when they became frayed. Simply rip the seam, remove the collar, flip it over, and then stitch the seam on her treadle Singer sewing machine. I also learned to replace pockets in men’s pants, a more time-consuming and difficult task. Learning on that machine stimulated my interest in sewing. When we moved to a larger apartment in another section of town, Harry bought me an electric Singer and I made almost all of my children’s clothing when they were small.
I don’t want to give the impression that my mother-in-law was a fastidious housekeeper who made her family and guests uncomfortable. Far from it. She was gracious and hospitable and made everyone feel at home. I welcomed her teaching, although I knew I could never live up to her standard.. We were different people with different needs and goals. Her needs were fulfilled by creating a clean, comfortable environment for those she loved.
Seeing a room sparkle after waxing the furniture and washing the windows gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay clean — the same tasks must be repeated over and over and over. As I see it, the problem with housework is that no one notices what you do unless you fail to do it. And when there are so many activities that seem more important to me, sometimes it doesn’t get done. She understood this and realized that the work I did at church and at school was worthwhile.
I loved my mother-in-law dearly. I’m truly thankful for all she taught me – and for the son she nurtured who became my husband.