When Dion was six weeks old, I was presented an award I never dreamt I’d win. I hesitate to toot my own horn but, well, I deserve it.
After hauling up a mountain of his clean clothes, husband Joe gathered the kids and unveiled my “certificate,” printed with Sharpie, adorned with construction paper and a feather stuck on with sparkly purple glue. I glanced over the top of my book at my “Official World Record!!”
“Momma!” it read. “Wow. At least 1,000,000 lbs laundry done.” I gave a satisfied nod, shifted the baby from one breast to the other and went back to my book.
Kai, 6, signed the kids’ names, then Joe looked around for a place to display it. He settled on my bookshelf, next to the glass “obelisk,” as he calls it, that I’d just gotten for being at Straus News for 10 years. It’s a good spot; the spot of honor, in fact. The sunlight glances in in the morning, catching my pair of silly awards.
I’ve never been comfortable with self-congratulatory mementoes. But these two, together, make me smile. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the Tiffany glass and the torn manila folder. And hey, why shouldn’t those two jobs be recognized side by side? After all, there was a time when I was not such a paragon of domesticity.
When Kai was about to be born, my aunts came over to help me get things ready. It was when we went to do a load of laundry that I gave myself away, heaping those incomprehensibly tiny clothes into the dryer instead of the washer. There was no way to deny it. I had never done laundry in the half-year we’d lived here. Back then, Joe did all that stuff. What did I do? I can’t remember: play Frisbee, trust that my joie de vivre made up for the dishes in the sink.
There is too much work now for any one person. The two of us in constant motion are just hanging on. Family members have suggested we get a little help, but here’s my secret. It might be a stretch to say I like doing laundry — I mean, I like sleeping more — but the mindless physical tasks of carrying, hanging, folding and carrying are a kind of work-meditation, as the Buddhists call it.
As I hang a pair of alpaca socks my thoughts might drift to the haberdashery in the Canadian village where I bought those for Joe. The little blue wool sweater brings back my mom, overcoming her primal penny-pinching instincts to splurge at the outlandishly priced “grandmother store.” I think of the friends who handed these clothes down, the friends I might pass them down to once we squeeze a couple more wears out of them. I might put my phone on speaker and call my brother, and have the kind of unhurried conversation I sometimes hear other people have these days and think: they are so free and aimless. I have lost the ability to socialize.
Windowless, nestled in the back corner of the house, the laundry room is my hideout. I imagine myself as Saddam Hussein in his underground cave. Sometimes the kids — the American elite forces in this scenario — won’t know where I am for a minute. Soon enough I’ll hear “Where’s Mom?” Unless there are tears I don’t answer, of course. They’ll figure it out. Our house is not that big. The laundry room is as far away as you can get without going outside — which, if you do that, the kids will want to come but won’t want to put on gloves and there may be tears.
A year ago we got rid of our dryer, along with our propane tank. Now we hang our laundry on Amish-made accordion racks and run a fan when there’s laundry drying, which, these days, is most of the time. The fan has this merciful side effect of muting the girls’ fighting, a major pastime in our house since the baby was born.
I’ve tried to deal, bumbling between the parent-book: You must have been feeling really frustrated to scratch your sister’s face like that. The morbid: You two have to figure it out. I’m going to die one day and you’ll be together for the rest of your lives. The Lord of the Flies-ish: You’re bigger than her, get her off of you.
Then I found my cop-out. When I feel my temperature rising, I get up calm as can be and start folding. When someone comes to me in tears, the fan whooshes away the words and I know, for once, exactly what to say: Hush. Do you want to help Mommy with the laundry?