I was a latchkey kid.
Daily, my sister and I biked home from school to an empty house, let ourselves in, and tackled the list of chores my mother had left for us. We were the “little girls,” the youngest of five children, still in elementary school when the others were in high school or college. By this time, my mother needed to work to help provide for our family. So we little girls returned from school to an empty house. No milk and cookies. No mother’s hug. Nothing but a sheet of paper with a too-long list of chores signed “Love, Mom.” Chores that usually included loads of laundry to hang on the clothesline and then fold when dry.
But through that, I knew my mother loved me.
I can’t say how I knew — or that I appreciated the chore list — but somehow my mother made it clear she would far rather be at home with us than at work, even though she found her job as a journalist fulfilling.
My mother was strict. When I grew up — when we had TV, which wasn’t always — we didn’t turn it on until 8 p.m., and then we watched shows together as a family, all seven of us. The only time I saw Saturday morning cartoons — or afternoon TV — was when I was at a friend’s house. When we misbehaved, we got spanked. When we talked back, we got our mouths washed out with soap. We didn’t misbehave or talk back often. When it was time to cook, we helped. When it was time to clean up, we took over. Before I left for college, I could cook and clean, do laundry, and run a household. My mother loved me.
It is the laundry that sticks in my mind as love, however. I was covering the art beat at the local newspaper when I purchased my first house. When the spring arts festival filled the downtown streets, I was a ready buyer for some local art. One that caught my eye was the painting of a girl hanging clothes on a clothesline. It graces my wall even today, for it brings back to mind a simpler time and my mother’s love.
My mom loved the great outdoors and lived in awe of God’s creation. She not only stopped to smell the roses, she was quick to point out their exquisiteness to us. We saw not only the beautiful bloom, but the buds, and the leaves, and even the little ant lions’ homes on the ground beneath the bush. When the weather was fine, the windows were open. Though she owned a dryer, she preferred the smell of clothes hung in the open air. My sister and I learned to hang clothes so that the wind could best blow through them. We learned to hang clothes so items shared clothespins, and we learned how to fold those items neatly. We also learned to take pride in our work.
Though I was a latchkey kid, I never used a key to get in. I only remember being locked out once and having to crawl in through the bathroom window into the bathtub. Tricky. No, my mother never gave me a key to the house; she gave me the key to her heart. Although I think both always were open to me.
I’m not quite sure I’ve written enough chore lists for my own children or managed to communicate love in work, as did my mother. I wasn’t as strict; we rarely watched TV as a family; I’m terrible at delegating. But I still open the windows and find myself doing laundry on days that are fine and hanging a load on the clothesline that graces our back porch.
I love you, too, Mom.