Society’s Backbone

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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, and 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.

Often overlooked for her contributions to the family’s construction business, it was laundry money that made payroll when the company could not. It was laundry money that kept the family fed during the long months of winter when house-building was halted. Her burden was heavy, and Clara was not fed much gratitude. No doubt, without her efforts, the nascent construction business would have collapsed.

Signs advertising for business are everywhere

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.

Tiny sois are the backroads in Chiang Mai

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, and rope lines. Some lucky families have a metal support. Those are the wealthier ones.

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.

Pot’s 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 to-morrow…”)

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 of her productive role in the family unit.

Women of varying ages raise their children through small businesses everywhere in this city. 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 family’s 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) boy-friends 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 phrases.

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.

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.

This seamstress sets up here every day

Women worldwide quietly and with little glamour, support their families and raise their children. This has been going on for centuries. It’s 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.

To read more about life in Thailand, click here.

About Retire Early Lifestyle

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired three decades ago at the age of 38 and began traveling the world. As recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel, they have been interviewed about retirement issues by The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, The Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter, nationally syndicated radio talk shows and countless newspapers and TV shows nationally and worldwide. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement (Your Simple Path to FIRE) and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.
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