Reading a piece of memoir recently, I was surprised by a sentence which made no sense. It ran: “Those were the days of ringers. My mother used one for many years.” My immediate frivolous thought linked ringers to bells. And a rush of nostalgia left me mournful as I remembered the bells of my youth, part of a lost soundscape that contributed to the special taste of Sundays and festivals. However, I couldn’t imagine the writer’s mother finding a use for a bell ringer and certainly not over many years.
Luckily the next sentence brought me back to earth and reminded me that reading sentences, divorced from their context, is a trap that should be avoided. So it was washing day was it? And a wringer washer, though a great improvement on hand wringing, was not as efficient as the spin dryers which were soon to become the norm.
Thinking about wringer washers brought to mind a long-suppressed incident from the days when I too used one and my preschool daughter had insisted on watching me wrangle the soaking wet contents out of the washer and through the wringer. Standing on a chair, she promised not to touch anything; but as I fed the last part of a heavy curtain into the rubber rollers, she put out her hand to help…. Luckily I was using the widest setting for the rollers and though horrified to see her hand and then her wrist disappear, I was able to turn the newly monstrous contraption off. And she was fine—her chubby little arm slightly pink after its massage—though her mother was left wondering how many more bungles she would make and near disasters she was likely to experience before her brood grew up, or she had a heart attack.
My Grandmother, on the other hand, carried the marks of a tangle with a wringer all her life or so she said, showing us children her crooked middle finger and forbidding us to even approach her mangle. This was not so much a wringer as a press. Its purpose was not to mangle in any destructive sense but to remove the water and the wrinkles from carefully folded wash before it dried. Hers was an iron construction painted dark green, with wooden rollers and a large circular hand crank on its side. Tall and stately it stood in the scullery opposite the copper, heated by gas, both waiting for a washing day that never to my knowledge arrived. Grandma sent the sheets, table cloths, shirts and towels to the laundry and boiled small cotton and linen items in a large tub on her gas stove. Woollens were washed by hand in special soap. Those too, were the days of wooden pegs and clothes lines, from which on still days the washing dangled, and on windy ones tangled.
The older I get, the more words become something I want to hold on to. Maybe because recalling the right word, as anyone of a certain age will know, sometimes sets one off on a circuitous journey seeking an alternative to a forgotten term. But also because words and their sounds can open up lost memories of an earlier life, enrich our experience of the present and indicate our tangled feelings about the future. So let’s celebrate the difference between wringers and ringers and rejoice in the many glories of speech.