A Wren’s Nest in Dad’s Bib Overalls

It was Monday morning, which meant clothes-washing time. A farm family of eight generated an enormous heap of dirty clothes in a week, and unless foul weather was imminent, Mother pulled the old Westinghouse wringer washer out of the corner of the back room and did the washing.

She filled the copper boiler with cold water from the kitchen sink. One faucet said “cold,” the other “hot,” but only the cold faucet produced water when you turned it on; we did not own a hot water tank yet. So she had to wait while the water heated on the old Kalamazoo cook stove.

As the water warmed she took her old paring knife, its blade sharpened into an efficient arc, and sliced two bars of Fels Naptha soap into the machine. Two galvanized rinse tubs were filled with cold water to be used after each load of clothes had agitated in the machine.

The hot water was poured into the machine and the first load, whites, went in. When Mother was certain that the load was adequately clean, she engaged the wringer atop the machine and fed the clothes between the rollers to squeeze out the soapy water. Then the next load went into the machine, the process repeated as the colors of the clothing darkened and the water grew murkier with soil.

The last load was always Dad’s bib overalls and work socks. Mother would cluck her tongue as she scrubbed the feet of the socks, rubbing vigorously with a bar of Fels Naptha and muttering, “Fred, Fred. These clothes are so dirty they could stand upright in the corner!”

Dad rarely heard her muttering, and if he did, he ignored it; clothing was a necessary protective covering to him, and it was frivolous to change it indiscriminately, which to his way of thinking was more often than weekly. He believed that any article of clothing should be worn exclusively until it was reduced to shreds. The final load of Monday’s laundry was, therefore, quite small: one pair of Big Mac bib overalls, one pair of denim dungarees which he wore to town and on Sunday afternoon, a few pair of stiff work socks, and whatever other under garments Mother coerced him into wearing.

It was my job to accompany Mother to the clothesline in the back yard and hand clothespins to her from the half-bushel basket that held her collection. The lightest colored pins were used for the white clothes, and subsequent darker loads could tolerate the older pins stained from heavy use.

By the time Mother had finished hanging the last load which included Dad’s overalls, it was too late for the clothes to dry before nightfall. So the Big Macs and monkey socks hung out and softened in the long hours of darkness.

The next day Mother was occupied with Tuesday obligations, and the overalls hung in the sunshine until mid afternoon. Dad came in from mowing hay and announced he needed a few new teeth on the sickle bar, causalities of rocks in the clover field, and had to make a trip to town to buy some. He surprised Mother by asking for a clean pair of bib overalls, and she remembered the pair on the clothes line from the day before.

She hurried to the back yard and was about to gather the clothes off the line when a small bird startled her by flying out of the front pocket of Dad’s bibs. Mother peeked in the pocket and smiled as she saw the beginnings of a nest, bits and pieces of feathers, tiny twigs, and soft grasses, already forming a small hollow for the wren where she would lay her eggs for a future family.

Returning to the kitchen empty handed, Mother smiled gently as Dad asked where his clean overalls were.

“I’m afraid they are spoken for,” she told Dad. “You’ll have to make do with another pair for a few weeks.”

Dad, being far more practical and less sentimental than Mother, sputtered a bit and put up a weak argument as he learned about the small brown bird that had chosen his britches to raise her family. He pointed out that a 200-acre farm had plenty of nesting opportunities besides the front pocket of his pants. Mother listened quietly, but the set of her jaw and the sparkle in her eye disarmed Dad, and he accepted defeat with as much grace as he could muster.

And so it was that we were treated to an intimate look at the ritual of a home-building, egg-laying, patiently-setting demure little bird that blinked her dark brown eyes at us as we peeked at her from a mere inches away.

The babies hatched, stretched their naked necks toward the sky, yellow beaks open wide, and accepted the bugs and seeds fed to them by a devoted mother. All too quickly they grew feathers, teetered precariously on the edge of Dad’s pocket, then tumbled into space and tried their wings.

When Mother was certain they had left the nest and had no plans to return, she took down the faded, sun-bleached overalls, washed them thoroughly, and returned them to Dad who sniffed the pocket before he took them upstairs to his bedroom to return them to their rightful place on his person.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Published on Feb 17, 2019
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