By Isaac Bashevis Singer
She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us, she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly and weak. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would then lift the bundle, put it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it the long way home.
She would bring the laundry back about two weeks later. My mother had never been so pleased with any washwoman. Yet she charged no more than the others. She was a real find. Mother always had her money ready, because it was too far for the old woman to come a second time.
Laundering was not easy in those days. The old woman had no running water where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry. So it had to be carried up to the attic and hung on clotheslines. Only God knows what the old woman had to endure each time she did a wash!
She could have begged at the church door or entered a home for the penniless and aged. But there was in her a certain pride and love of labor with which many members of the labor force have been blessed. The old woman did not want to become a burden, and so she bore her burden.
The woman had a son who was rich. He was ashamed of his mother, and never came to see her. Nor did he ever give her money. The old woman told this without bitterness. When the son got married, the wedding took place in a church. The son had not invited the old mother to his wedding, but she went to the church anyway and waited at the steps to see her son lead the bride to the altar.
One day the washwoman, now nearly eighty years old, came to our house. A good deal of laundry had accumulated during the past weeks. Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power. It was sad to watch the old woman stagger out with the big buddle and disappear.
Usually the woman brought back the wash after two or, at the most, three weeks. But three weeks passed, then four and five, and nothing was heard of the old woman.
For us the washwoman’s absence was a catastrophe. We needed the laundry. We did not even know the woman’s address. It seemed certain that she had collapsed, died. Mother declared she had had a premonition that we would never see our things again. We mourned, both for the laundry and for the old woman who had grown close to us through the years she had served us so faithfully.
More than two months passed. One evening, while Mother was sitting near the lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a huge bundle, entered. Under the bundle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. Mother uttered a half-choked cry, as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her bundle. She was even thinner now, more bent. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.
After the old woman had recovered somewhat, she told us that she had been ill, very ill. In fact, she had been so sick that someone had called a doctor, and the doctor had sent for a priest. Someone had informed the son, and he had contributed money for a coffin. But God had not yet wanted to take this poor soul to Himself. She began to feel better, she became well, and as soon as she was able to stand on her feet once more, she resumed her washing. Not just ours, but the wash of several other families too.
“I could not rest easy in m bed because of the wash,” the old woman explained. “The wash would not le me die.”
“With the help of God you will live to be a hundred and twenty,” said my mother.
“God forbid! What good would such a long life be? The work becomes harder and harder … my strength is leaving me … I do not want to be a burden on any one!” The old woman muttered, crossed herself, and raised her eyes toward heaven. After getting paid, she left, promising to return in a few weeks for a new load of wash.
But she never came back. The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by a strong will to return the property to its owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.