The River

 

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Judy and Madeline, 1992

So many people around me have stories to tell. This time, I’ve asked my sister Judy to contribute something to the blog, so here is her guest post. She writes, “in the winter of 1980/81, I spent six months backpacking through Sri Lanka, India and Nepal with two friends. Everyday was an adventure.This piece describes laundry day near Kandy, nestled among the hills in central Sri Lanka.”

By Judy Walker

The sun is hot. It beats down with all its force on the flat white rocks and reflects off the surface of the slow moving river creating a shimmering haze which envelopes the surrounding countryside. The couple squat on a slab of rock, their toes in the water, the sun heavy on their necks and backs, like an added weight, making it difficult to move. They go slowly, slowly working their way through the pile of clothes between them. Piece by piece the soiled clothes are dunked in the murky water, rubbed with soap then thwack, thwack, slapped against the rock, sending drops of water flying through the humid air. They work to the tunes of Hank Williams “Yer cheatin’ heart.” Hank wails while they work, getting into the rhythm, the sound, the feel of sweat pouring down their bodies.

She is brown and thin, wearing only a piece of black material wrapped around her body and gold around her wrists, ankles and throat. He is darker and fatter, black bushy hair wrapped in a knot at the back of his head, wearing a white lungi around his loins and a pair of sunglasses. Occasionally one or the other stop work to glance around, not wanting to miss any of the action. As the day gets hotter people and animals wander down to the river to submerge themselves in the cool water. An elephant is led down the jungle path moving slowly and labouriously. His keeper, a small black man, releases the animal at the edge of the water and he wades in. He slowly lowers his huge body into river, first down on his front knees, oomph, then on all fours, oomph, then he rolls over sending ripples across the river. His body is covered save for one eye and his trunk snaking out of the murky water.  He lies still and once again the surface of the river is like glass.

Not for long. A couple of boys just liberated from a morning at school run shrieking from the bushes, fly through the air and cannon ball into the deeper waters upstream, splash…splash. Then they’re out of the water and in again, splash… splash.

A long horned cow taking a break from working the rice paddies is led to the water by a young boy. She needs a little coaxing and pushing but is finally standing in water up to her chest. Her keeper pours water over her head and back.

Occasionally a woman appears from one of the many hidden paths leading to the river carrying a bundle of clothes to wash. She takes up her position at the edge of the water and begins the ritual. Thwack, thwack, each woman working to her own rhythm, the sound echoes through the river valley. Soon the surrounding rocks are covered with bright coloured saris drying in the sun.

The couple have finished the washing and are now moving slowly, spreading the wet clothes over the warm rocks and dried grass. This task finished, they retreat back from the river’s edge a bit, taking refuge from the midday sun under a coconut palm. The man removes a small pouch from the folds of his lungi and takes out a piece of sticky black hash, some tobacco and papers and proceeds to make a joint. The woman looks on lazily. Down river labourers are hard at work collecting mud from the river bed. They carry it into the forest in baskets balanced expertly on their heads. Everyone else, beast and human, have quit working for a few hours to avoid the punishing heat.

The clothes dry quickly but the man and woman under the tree are too stoned, too lazy to retrieve them just yet. Hank is singing a sad song and it is just so hot.

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Drawing by Madeline Walker

 

 

What are you wearing today?

 

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More than twenty years ago my boys were babies, and I was a La Leche League leader, helping other women to breastfeed.  LLL is an organization with good intentions, but some of their values I couldn’t align with, for example, their insistence on the heterosexual couple as the sine qua non. My tenure as a leader was very short.

I remember leader meetings, lots of women gathering at somebody’s messy house with babies at their breasts, toddlers underfoot, herbal tea steeping in the kitchen alongside the plate of carob brownies.  Before we started the business portion of our meeting, one of the leaders would pose an ice-breaker question, for example, when did you last have sex?  I have to admit I blushed hotly at that question and probably evaded answering.  And then another question that was more interesting to me, tell us a bit about an item of clothing you are wearing: What’s the backstory?

I used that question as a writing prompt when I taught English, and it’s still a question that I enjoy asking myself and others. I might be walking down the street and notice my shoes. . . where did I get them?  Sometimes the story is flat and uninteresting, but other times the tale has tasty layers.

Today I am wearing the grey hoodie I bought at the Gap in Manhattan on my honeymoon.  I found it on the boys’ rack, 50% off, so I snapped it up.  I didn’t really want to take much time for clothes shopping—we had only four days and we packed them full, going to the Metropolitan museum; listening to jazz in Washington Square; basking on park benches; eating pastries at Italian bakeries; going to plays; wandering through SoHo, Harlem, Central Park, and Greenwich Village; finding cool little galleries and stores; taking photographs; and eating wonderful food. And lots of loving, of course.

I needed warmth at a bargain during that chilly spring vacation because when we arrived at La Guardia I had no luggage—just the clothes on my back. We had booked an early morning flight, and my youngest son had kindly offered to stay over at our apartment and drive us to the airport.  Groggy in the blue dawn, we hugged him good-bye and went into Departures as he drove off in our car.  As we started to check in, I looked down and realized that the black duffle bag I had packed for our week’s vacation—NYC honeymoon followed by a few days in Toronto—was nowhere to be seen. And then I remembered it was still in the trunk of our car, now speeding down the Patricia Bay Highway to my son’s house.

I had a small burst of tears, and then I cheered right up. “It will be an adventure,” I offered my concerned husband.  “I don’t need much, just a couple of things. It will be a minimalist honeymoon.”  We kissed and then I just let go of the idea I needed my favourite jeans, certain socks, that lovely sweater, my contact lenses. I just wanted to adapt to what was happening because what was happening was wonderful. Honeymoon! Clothes are not so important in the large scheme of things, anyway.

I picked up the cheap hoodie that still serves me well. I think it was twelve bucks. We took the bus to Hell’s Kitchen and visited the Salvation Army to find a pair of pants and a shirt.  As I moved slowly down the aisles of musty clothes, I met an old woman with a voluminous skirt, pulling pants up under them.  “The change rooms are such a hassle, so I finally learned to just wear a skirt so I can try on stuff right in the store,” she chuckled with the wisdom of the serious lifetime thrifter.  I liked her.

I washed out my one pair of panties every night in the hotel sink and blew the last bit of damp out of them with the hair dryer in the morning.

My goodness, we had fun those four days. I felt so very light and loved, free and happy.

That’s the story of the grey hoodie. Look at something you are wearing. What’s its history? Please write your sartorial story in comments. I am looking forward to it.

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