It was not until I went away to college that I realized how much laundry my mother did. I don’t mean that my family of four generated an unusual amount—none of us changed more than once a day, or had especially extensive wardrobes—or that she stood around an industrial-sized cauldron like Mrs. Buckets in “Cheer Up, Charlie.” Rather, at any given moment, some step of laundry-washing was in process. If the washer or dryer wasn’t running, clothes were being sorted. Large piles of lights and darks littered the hall floor. There was a wicker hamper of some description, in a nook under the linen closet, but things either didn’t make it there or were sorted with such dispatch that they never reached its limbo. And always, always, there was the folding. My parents’ bed was generally covered with a large pile of clean clothes; anyone who happened to be sitting on the bed watching TV would either fold a few napkins in the course of a show (me) or sit atop a mound, occasionally knocking clothes onto the floor (my brother.) Then there was the hand-washing, or those pieces my mother had deemed too delicate for the dryer: there were usually a few of these hanging damply in the bathroom. She did not work full-time back then; one wonders how all the laundry might have gotten done if she had.
It’s not that she was compulsively clean in other ways; if anything, the house was fairly chaotic. Indeed, when we did have guests over, the door to the master bedroom had to be kept rigorously shut because there was so much laundry on the floor. We always had plenty of clean clothes, which is of course nice, but in retrospect I think she washed things too much: towels got frayed and faded long before their times, the knees of our jeans seemed to have unusually short lifespans. She used utilitarian detergents; there was some vague but distinct taboo against fabric softener that made the first sheet I borrowed in the college laundry room feel deliciously illicit.
Her constant laundry-doing was a running joke in the family, as well as something of a mystery. How was there always so much laundry? The mystery only deepened when I moved out on my own and realized that one load a week was sufficient to keep me in clean clothes and sheets, and that the whole process only took a couple of hours.
And then when I was twenty-five, I found myself without regular work. The inactivity was horrible; I would find the days slipping away in a haze of self-loathing and Internet surfing. The answer, I quickly discovered, was laundry. At any given moment, there was something useful and efficient I could be doing! Sorting! Washing! Drying! Folding! And let’s not forget the hand-washing of delicates. I invested in a series of hampers and drying-racks, yet somehow my sorting system became increasingly baroque. Despite near-constant trips to the laundromat, my floor was gradually overtaken by an archipelago of piles and micro-piles: dark hand-washing, dry-cleaning, denim, things I had picked up at thrift stores and vaguely intended to soak in Woolite. Then when guests came over I had to shut my bedroom door to conceal the piles, or else jam everything into the closet and start the process anew. I loved it.
Gradually, my full-time laundry job was supplemented by sidelines in multi-step bread-baking, at which I was terrible; dusting (as opposed to vacuuming, which demanded less frequent application); and the sorting of coins, which—due to all the pants on the floor—tended to accumulate in the corners of rooms, and which then needed to be turned into quarters, so I could do more laundry. This was a strange period in my life, in retrospect.
There is a near-mythological story in my family, of an incident dating to the early sixties. It was after dinner in my father’s boyhood home, and his parents were having an argument. Finally, with an air of martyrdom, my grandmother, Sadie, rose to leave the room.
“Where are you going?” demanded her husband.
“To do the dishes,” she said.
“But you already did the dishes!” he exclaimed.
And then she gave him a look as old as time and, voice heavy with weary dignity, uttered the immortal line, “There are always dishes, Joe.”
That’s another story that was always played for laughs, like my mom and the laundry. Neither strikes me as especially funny now. My mother has slowed her laundry to a normal pace; their door is open to friends and guests and her life feels happy and full. But I am still secretly glad when the hamper is full, and I know that for the next few hours I am unexceptionally occupied by something which will bear tangible results. There are always dishes. Thank goodness for that.