garden notes, stray thoughts
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To hang out the washing

Tete a Tete

Rip Van Winkle

Birdsong and light in the mornings. Always the coo-COO-coo of the wood pigeon. The days are warmer, almost spring-like. Washing on an airer in the garden. The line, once strung between the shed & the dead cherry, hangs slack now that we’ve had the tree taken down. One of my favourite things: hanging out the washing in summer. Best that the machine finishes before the sun reaches over the houses. The line in light, bare legs in shade. That feeling of promise early on a summer’s day and the virtuousness of a line of washing in the sun. How a sheet whips taut in the breeze. My grandma’s line with its wooden line-prop. Lupins, mint, and pink cranesbill in the long border beside it.

Front garden

Front garden

The lines at the back of our flat in London: Edwardian maisonettes, a ground floor and a first floor, each with its own thin garden. We were upstairs but had to walk down the steps to reach our line. But the best upstairs lines were high above the gardens so that you could reach them from the back door on the first floor — a pulley system allowing the washing to be floated out above the garden & later hauled back in.

A moment in Helen Garner’s essay ‘Our Mother’s Flood 1’ about her mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease. A nurse in the home suggesting that they don’t say goodbye when they leave at the end of a visit: ‘It only upsets her. By the time you get to the lift she’s forgotten you’ve even been here. Sneak out. Believe me, it’s kinder.’

We were appalled by this suggestion. But one day, in the tense moment before parting, it occurred to me to say, ‘I’m just going out the back, Mum, to hang out the washing.’

Her agitation melted. She said pleasantly, ‘Got enough pegs?’

Yes, hanging the washing, I think that would work on me too.


On daffodil watch (top to bottom): Tête-à-Tête; Rip Van Winkle (tiny and dandelion-like); the buttery-white and yellow daffodils that fill the tiny front garden.


  1. If I one day find myself in such a state, I hope there are people around who understand the slight shifts in behavior that will reduce my anxiety. I believe losing my memory is my biggest fear.

    • Sarah says

      Yes, small kindnesses, endless patience, that’s what we’d have to hope for in those around us.

  2. I loved this. It made me think of my grandmother who, dying of vascular dementia, seemed utterly lost to us until my mother told her about my cousin’s new pet rats. My grandmother seemed to sit straighter in her chair and her eyes, that had appeared half-dead already, busy staring at something beyond anything in the room, came back to us as she looked first at my mother’s face and then at mine. ‘Rats!’ she said. ‘Oh no! How could he?’ And we laughed, all three of us because she was still there somewhere. Amen to the mundane.

    • Sarah says

      Those moments of lucidity are amazing, aren’t they? My grandmother too had vascular dementia (not the one of the wooden line-prop, but the other — rotary line high on a hill; begonias). The last time I saw her was just before she went into a home & very quickly died there. As we were leaving she said, ‘Have a nice life,’ instead of goodbye. But it definitely seemed that was what she intended to say.

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