“He is a little bit late, isn’t he?” asked Emina, opening the door. With her hair wrapped up in a wet towel she headed back through the narrow hallway. Slightly confused, I stood there for a few seconds trying to figure out who she was talking about but it was scorching outside and all I wanted was to feel the cold tiles under my bare feet.
“It’s as hot as an oven outside, Minci.”
Emina kept quiet with her eyes glued to the thirty-two-inch Bira TV. All the windows were closed and the curtains were drawn.
She pointed towards the hallway with the remote control. I kept looking at her wet hair. Emina had thick shampoo commercial hair, long and shiny as well. I once sneaked a few of her photos from the family album and secretly posted them to some advertising agencies to try her and of course our luck with a shampoo commercial. It would have pissed off mom but nothing came out anyway.
I was dragged back to the very middle of the living room by the hectic voice on the national TV channel. The popemobile … is now driving … to the impressive cathedral. The correspondent was speaking with frequent hesitations as the ruthless sun and the people behind were making it impossible for him to keep his famous confident stance. The streets are lined … on each side … with waving and … cheering supporters.
“Silly me!” I flung myself into the nearest armchair. “Now I get all that fuss in the streets. That’s why the damn old trams are not working today.”
It was the day the Pope arrived in the capital. The billboards all around the city had been announcing his day-long visit for weeks but I was so busy with my dissertation that I had lost track of days. Seriously? Did he have to come on such a hot day after we had so many rainy mornings, afternoons and evenings?
“Minci? Was it the Pope you were talking about just before you opened the door?”
“Yes, why? Mom’s all het up, by the way. She got upset during the morning news about something. I’m not sure what it is but I think it’s… well, I think it’s the laundry. I mean she couldn’t hang the clothes on the balcony today because of the bloody tight security.”
I must have looked so confuzzled that Emina, without taking her eyes off the screen, held up that day’s carefully folded paper at me. “Read for yourself.”
Security concerns have been heightened since a police officer was killed in April in the town of Sedra, in what authorities said was a suspected terrorist attack. The residents along the route have been told not to open their windows or stand on balconies.
“She’s been grumbling since then. Go see yourself. Maybe, you’ll cheer her up.”
As I shuffled out, I could still hear the correspondent. Thousands of police officers are standing guard along the Pope’s motorcade route. Emina grinned cruelly, “I hope you’ve remembered to buy the softener mom wanted?”
A soft grumble drifted from the smallest bathroom in the neighbourhood, roomy enough to hold a seven-kilogram Bosch washing machine, though.
“Mom? All the shops and cafés are closed, you know. The Pope’s in town.”
Kneeled down, she frowned at me while taking a pile of underwear out of the machine.
“Well, I couldn’t buy the softener you wanted.”
She sighed pensively.
“Listen, I’ll go and get one as soon as the supermarket opens today, promise.”
Her silence was unfamiliar but I’d spotted a familiar expression in her wrinkled eyes. She seemed as if she was carried away by a memory, a disturbing one I had never dared to ask about before. Exploring the light blue-tiled bathroom at a glance I immediately knew what would distract her. Laundry. She was the only woman in the whole canton, I bet, who could tell the difference between the icons of ‘tumble dry/ gentle cycle’ and ‘tumble dry/ permanent press cycle’ on laundry charts. She’d been washing and hanging clothes every single day ever since we left the country.
“Mom? You never let us hang the laundry.” She gave me a blank look holding a wet white bra with pink polka dots on it. ‘The thing’ which had been troubling her since that morning let go of her that instant. She was distracted.
“You know nothing about hanging laundry, dear. You need lots of practice and commitment to do it properly.” Her introductory seriousness about laundry almost made me crack up. What could be so demanding to stick a peg on the fabric and put it on a clothesline? “Fetch my cigarettes,” she said holding up her favourite plastic laundry basket full of briefs, bras, slips and tanks and left the bathroom.
“Well honey, sort the clothes on top of the washing machine first.” She took a deep puff of her cigarette while seating herself around the oval dining table with the snowy white cloth over it. “Prepare the jeans and pants by folding the legs with the seams together and then fold them in half and lay them.”
I winked at Emina to join us but her eyebrows arched towards the screen with her chin raised in an effort to tell me she was more interested in the Pope’s homily broadcast live from the cathedral. His words on peaceful coexistence in this bloody city seemed far more important than mom’s lecture on how to hang laundry and take it down.
“Just before you hang each piece, give it a sharp snap because you don’t want wrinkled pants.” Mom went on taking another puff.
I was getting drowsy now shrouded in the smoky cloud mom was forming as she talked in the shady room. All I could follow was her yellow golden engagement ring on her fifty-five-year-old hands moving in the air to help me picture the snap she gives to the pants. My eyelids were getting heavier as I yawned. She looked much younger, happier now without her marionette lines. She didn’t have those nasty-looking tobacco stains on her fingers either. We were standing on the match-box wide balcony of our rent-free apartment in Berlin. It was a windy day which she liked most. The giant bedsheets were flying up and mom was trying to beat them down to be able to stick the pegs. I try to hang my clothes on a windy day, you know darling, it has the same effect as drying in a dryer. Mommy, can I wear the apron? Please, mommy? Mom always wore the same mini check patterned apron she herself made. It was three hand spans long with two large pockets on the front to store the pegs. It tied around her waist tightening her to feel safer in our ‘tolerated’ lives as three refugees in that city. She would immediately light a cigarette to end the morning laundry ritual and let me play with the apron and wooden pegs in it. For a five-year old child, it was no different from playing house with mom. I liked it most when it was my turn to be the mother. Where are daddy’s shirts, mommy?
“Ouch! That hurt!” Emina’s sisterly side kick came with a wink and a smile as she walked into the kitchen to change the dirty ashtray. I nodded spitefully which made her smile even more. She came back with three small cups and a big copper-plated pot of coffee almost overflowing with thick foam.
“Thanks darling, your timing is perfect, as usual.” Spooning out a layer of foam from the top mom shone one of her grateful smiles to her ever thoughtful daughter. It seemed that even Emina’s cleverly imposed coffee break couldn’t end mom’s dull lecture. I still can’t remember why I didn’t tell mom to change the topic then. Perhaps it was the fear of ‘the thing’ I hoped to keep away from her as long as I could because mom, Emina and I, in years, had come to learn how to protect each other in different ways.
“Turn dark items like jeans or t-shirts inside out because sun fading…” mom went on preaching. Or perhaps I was just being overprotective.
I then caught sight of the the Pope on TV. He seemed deeply moved by the testimony of the nuns about torture and abuses during the war. You have no right to forget your story. Hearing the Pope’s advice too mom unexpectedly stopped. The ‘thing’ was back in her distressed eyes. Do not take revenge, but make peace. She crushed the fag end into the ashtray and stood up. “Emina dear, turn the volume up, will you? And you darling, pull the curtains and open all the windows. I don’t care if the draught would give me a crick in the neck for the rest of my life. Just open them.” She took another quick look at the Pope. Even the deepest wounds can be healed by purifying memories… And mom left the room with all the curtains pulled and the windows wide open letting the last few rays of the calmed sun in. We soon heard her shut the bedroom door.
As the elder daughter, it was, now, Emina’s turn to take care of mom and she knew it too.
“Mom, is everything alright?”
“Leave me alone, Minci.”
“It’s all right, mom, I’ll hang the laundry. Don’t worry. I’ll do it in a second. And it’s almost six; we can use the balcony now. Come on, mom.”
“Emina, leave me alone.”
There was another thing we had come to learn, over the years, about mom. When she repeated the same imperative form twice, she really meant it. So Emina left mom alone with ‘the thing’ for another two hours.
“There she comes, Minci. She is unlocking the door. Switch off the TV.”
Mom passed in front of the living room, stood there for a few seconds and smiled at us. She looked slightly better with her arms full of clothes again. The odd thing was that the clothes didn’t belong to any of us. They weren’t mine, for sure. I never bought dark coloured pants or shirts. Emina and I exchanged a single puzzled glance.
“Need a hand, mom?”
“No, darling. I’ll do it myself.”
“Oh, by the way, I’ve bought the softener. It’s on the machine.”
“Thanks dear. I’ll need a lot of it this time.”
The rest of the evening was pretty much ordinary. We ate together and watched the highlights of the day in the evening news. Emina was rewarded with another grateful smile for the evening coffee before she curled up in her favourite spot on the sofa with the remote control in her hand. I buried myself into another chapter in my dissertation and mom did the washing up while the German tank was purifying ‘the thing’.
“Mom? The machine’s stopped. Want me to take the laundry to the balcony now?”
“No, no darling. I’ll do it myself.”
I followed her to the balcony overlooking the tram road. The heat was still bothering me and a second-hand Austrian tram was rattling along towards the city center. I was curious to learn about the clothes mom was about to hang. I could have immediately asked her whose clothes they were and got an answer right there and returned to my chapter on poverty and urbanisation, but instead I started off with her favourite topic.
“Mom? Why don’t you ever let us hang the laundry?”
“You know nothing about hanging laundry, dear. You need lots of practice and commitment to do it properly.” I couldn’t help smiling this time hoping the darkness would hide it. She first put on her peg apron and grabbed a whole hand full of clothes. “Remember darling, to hang jeans or pants by the legs. Then the water will wick down to the waistband pulling out the wrinkles,” and she clipped the legs of a pair of trousers with the seams together with one hand. She leaned forward over the railings again and clipped the legs of another pair.
“What’s this smell, mom? It’s not the softener you use, right?”
“It’s the mothballs, dear. It will take time to get that smell out of these. Never mind. ” She took out a few plastic pegs from the right pocket of the apron and went on. “Where was I? Aha, hang shirts and blouses upside down by the side seams so you won’t get the puckers from the pegs that you get if you hang them by the shoulders. Got it, dear?” Leaning forward over the railings she clipped three large shirts one after another with ease.
“Got it, mom.” The noise of an old Japanese member of the tram fleet faithfully helped me hide the boredom in my reply.
Mom calmly put a cigarette in her mouth. She lighted a match and sucked on the flame through the cigarette until it was fully lit.
She handed me a white shirt and a few pegs.
“It’s your turn now. Here are daddy’s shirts, dear.”
Mehtap Özer Isović grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. She’s been teaching English in Sarajevo for the last eight years. She takes part in local projects which are aimed to revive desolate public spaces. Taking photographs of people in their everyday situations is one of her creative outlets. She is currently working on Katherine Mansfield’s short stories for a personal project.
Photo: Kate Ter Haar