My Grandmother was a laundress. Call
her a washerwoman if you like. I say she was the backbone of our family.
For decades Clara took in people's grimy clothes, sheets and towels.
They were washed, ironed, folded, then placed in bags to return to their
proper owners. My Grandmother was famous for her work. Neighbors and
customers were in amazement that even her discarded house rags were snow
white and stain free. No one knew how she did it, and Clara wouldn't
share her secret.
SIGNS ADVERTISING FOR BUSINESS ARE EVERYWHERE
Often overlooked for her contributions to the family's construction
business, it was laundry money that made payroll when the company could
not. Her burden was heavy, and Clara was not fed much gratitude. No
doubt, without her efforts, the construction business would have
On days that went especially well, she
would squirrel away a few dollars for herself. I never knew what Grandma did with that money, but I
suspect she bought her grandchildren presents.
My mind goes to her often these days as I walk along
the tiny sois (alleys) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, taking our laundry to a
laundress. Fees here run from 20 to 35 baht (50-85 cents US) per kilo.
As I walk to my particular washwoman's house, the paved soi narrows,
twists, and finally turns into a dirt walking path. I pass three or four
other households offering the same service on this soi.
Some of these women smile at me when I say hello, others
turn their heads and pretend they don't see me. Washing is done by hand
or by machine, but no one has a dryer. Children and dogs are everywhere and so
is the laundry. It hangs on fences, tree limbs, rope lines and some
lucky families have a metal support. Those are the wealthier ones.
TINY SOIS ARE THE BACK ROADS IN CHIANG MAI
Each time I come to her home, Pot and I are glad to see each other. I give money to have my laundry cleaned, ironed
and folded, and with this payment she feeds her family.
Potís business is open every day rain or shine. Passing over puddles on
some days, I kick little stones down the dried path on others. My small
gift to her is that I never ask for same day service, and for this she
is grateful. We always have smiles for each other as Pot takes my soiled
clothing, weighs it, and then gives me both a price and a cardboard
number. "Pope-ken-mai, Poo-nee" I say as I leave. ("See you
POT IS ALWAYS BUSY WORKING
No one seems to help Pot with the business, either. Her husband appears
hopelessly lost when I come calling one afternoon, number in hand... The
children sit in front of the TV and call out so
she knows I am there.
Neither fatigue nor distress show on
her face. She gets to be at home with her children, and is proud to be productive in the family unit.
Women of varying ages raise their children through small businesses
everywhere. One particularly lighthearted woman runs an internet shop
down the street from my laundress. With three children including a brand
new baby, Ticky runs the shop downstairs, while her familyís private
rooms are upstairs. Practicing and learning English with customers or
through online chat rooms, she also translates love letters from her Thai girlfriends to their (farang) boyfriends via email. On occasion,
she will ask me to interpret something for her,
and in this way I get to learn the English versions of unique Thai
TICKY CAFE IS OPEN DAILY
Ticky is young, beautiful, meticulous
about her appearance, warm, loyal, industrious and single. I
originally found her because a friend told me she was open for business
on Sundays when other internet shops often close. There is no day off
when you are supporting your children.
Another woman we know runs a restaurant. Everyone thinks they can do
this and do it well, but we have seen those folks come and go. They get
fatigued, bored, don't manage their money, or their restaurant gets
dirty and customer attention drops off. Ong has been there for years.
Her prices are a bit higher than other places, but she puts fresh
flowers on the tables, repaints her restaurant when needed, and makes
consistently delicious foods. Ong, too, is single, and her son lives
with his father in a town hundreds of miles away. She sends her boy
packages via the bus because it is reliable and cheaper than the mail,
and Ong sees him maybe twice a year.
THIS SEAMSTRESS SETS UP HERE EVERY DAY
Although her smile and laugh will light up the room, I
see tedium and loneliness cross her brow on occasion. Something tells me
there is more to her story than she wants us to know.
Women worldwide quietly and with little
glamour, support their families and raise their children. This has been going on
for centuries. Itís what we women do. There are countless stories like these, and perhaps
you know similar examples in your own experience.
Filling my life with outrage or getting churned up from perceived hardships or
inequities doesn't help anyone. However, there is no glass ceiling on respect, and it doesn't cost me
a dime to gratefully acknowledge a service being given to me.
Perhaps the next time you are in line at the grocery store, or dropping
off your dry cleaning you could consider a different tack. Instead of having
a cell phone glued to your ear, or impatiently ignoring the clerk
tallying up your items, take an esteemed look at the person in front of
you. Make eye contact. Call her by name. Ask how her day is going.
She could be the backbone of her family, and the generous gift of
recognition that you give to her could be just the payment she needs.