Happy Mothers’ Day, Wanderers.
Today’s blog post is an essay I wrote three years ago for one of my writing classes. It’s called “Love,” and it’s about my mother. This one’s for you, Momma. I love you.
It’s in the way my mother does laundry.
When we are home, and, more often, when we aren’t home, she moves quietly between each of our rooms—teal, magenta, royal purple—to heave the dirty-laundry baskets (which are usually full of mostly-clean clothes) to her bedroom, where the six limp, empty hampers stand stored in her and my stepfather’s tiny walk-in closets. She sets the baskets down on the floor, making tracks in the pale carpet when she wheels the hampers out. She sorts. Each piece of clothing makes its home in one of the six hampers, with laundry of its own kind—either darks, jeans, whites, brights, pinks, or underwear. I don’t have any idea why she has so many different categories of laundry or how she decided that these are the most appropriate groups. My mother is the most practical person I know. Maybe it is because she likes order and making sense of her world—this goes here, that goes there.
But probably it just has something to do with the fact that raising five daughters equals a lot of clothes: the six categories are a necessity. She washes all the piles on cold, except jeans, which are on warm, and underwear, which are on hot. Pressing on the Gain bottle with her right thumb—the one that’s split open down the middle of the nail, like her mother’s is (maybe mine, too one day? Do we inherit cracks and breaks such as these?)—she pours the blue detergent in, but only after she pulls the metal knob of the washer to start the water running. Bang goes the metal door as it falls. She does this six times for every round of laundry.
And six times my mom opens the door to the dryer, slides out the lint trap, which is always full of lint because of the sheer volume of clothing in each load, takes out the lint, slides it back in, turns the dial. Not all the pieces go in the dryer. She checks all the tags of every shirt, hangs the delicate ones so carefully on the drying rack like new paper so that they do not shrink or rip or wrinkle. The dryer rocks and rocks on the top floor and makes us think the house is going to crumble down around us as we sit under it at our kitchen table and watch the ceiling lamp pulse and buzz. My mother and stepfather hired a repairman, once, to fix the dryer, but the rocking never stopped. They were mad that they spent all the money on it only for it to be wasted. Secretly, I am glad that it was stubborn enough to stay, because even though it scares me a little when dust shakes from the ceiling onto my dinner plate, it sort of sounds like a rocket-ship, like my house is sprouting wings and turbine engines and someone somewhere is counting down to takeoff. Actually, I’m the one counting down to takeoff, in my head, at least. Three…two…one. BZZZZZZZZZZ. Laundry’s done.
I hope that one of these days our house will fly away instead. My mom always did say I had an overactive imagination.
After the alarm goes off, my mother dutifully climbs the stairs like some good soldier and opens the dryer door with a metal clang and fearlessly reaches her hand into the beating heart of the house—and pulls out the steaming, wrinkled fabrics that smell miraculously like afternoon naps in the sunshine. She throws them all into the laundry basket, and their movement through the air is almost like that scene from The Great Gatsby when Gatsby is throwing all his shirts around and laughing and Daisy says, “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts.” Except the strange thing is that they’re not particularly beautiful—many of the clothes are hand-me-downs.
Some pieces are stretched in the chest where our bras, to our delight, grew outward; some are stretched in the hips, which, less to our delight, also grew outward; some at the sleeves where we pulled them down over our skinny wrists, some at the hems where we tied them up with rubber bands in the summer to make our bellies tan. The armpits of the white shirts are slightly yellowed. Denim jeans fade and thin out at the kneecaps and rip from crawling on the floor at far too old of an age. The room reflects onto the dandelion walls the translucent, colored shadows: shadows of the things we wear on our bodies and the shadows of our bodies and ourselves. Lint particles float through the air.
It is the dustiest kind of utopia.
And next is the folding, the endless cycle of folding. My mother is the patron saint of folding laundry. My stepdad never does it—he does the dishes and the cooking, she does the laundry—that’s the deal and they like it that way. Maybe my mom likes doing laundry better because doing dishes all the time would ruin her hands. She has beautiful hands—long, slim, straight fingers and almond-shaped nails that never seem to chip, except the one thumb. My palms are too wide and my knuckles are crooked and my nails are red and raw and uneven because I bite them all the time out of nervous habit. I wish I had inherited her hands.
My mother carries the basket of freshly-clean fabric, grunting because her right arm and shoulder are bad, so she has to wear a brace on her arm sometimes. Setting the basket on the couch beside her, she takes a seat on the left side, where the threads of the plaid of the couch are coming loose and the cushion sinks in the middle from so much sitting. She turns on The Young and the Restless, as usual (she’s been watching it devotedly for almost 30 years now), and then the magic begins: she manipulates the clothes into these crisp little squares and rectangles and triangles, separating them by the daughter they belong to. It’s hard for her to tell anymore. We’re all old and all of our clothes look the same, and some of our clothes are the same because we share them or have passed them on down to each other. Or passed them up, actually—I’ve inherited things from both older and younger sisters. We all grow at different rates now so the inheritances aren’t exactly linear.
Fold the sleeves back and up. Fold the bottom half back and up. Fold the sides in and flip over. Button the top button of the collar. She turns to me many times throughout the course of her folding, asking whose underwear is this and isn’t this Emily’s shirt? Or Sarah’s? Sometimes I know. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I feel guilty knowing that in the next two or three days these carefully folded clothes are going to end up wrinkled and amassed into balls shoved into the back of musty old drawers that don’t have room for them anyway.
And Mom realizes this—I have seen her bright, bottle-green eyes roll upward and her head shake at the state of our mess. But her hands keep folding, sorting, holding, handling. My mother holds these clothes, handles them, knows them, and by knowing them, she knows us.
Maybe she knew us all along.
Perhaps it is because we are a part of her—all five of us, though only three of us are her biological daughters. Stephanie and Alicia are her stepdaughters, but she does their laundry all the same. We all give and take pieces from each other like some ephemeral puzzle, daughters and mothers, mothers and daughters.
She is a daughter, too, you know. My grandmother, my Nonnie, inherited my mom’s laundry. My mother inherited the crack in her thumbnail from her mother, and she inherited laundry from me. What else will she pass down onto me? Already my stepfather fondly tells me I have inherited much from her—that is why my mother and I get along so well—but he never quite tells me what.
But somehow, I think I know. Laundry’s just another word for it.