My son returns to college this weekend so I’m thinking about death.
Mainly my own.
How everything good ends.
And how life is such a trickster.
Sucking us in by love, disarming us of our defenses, distracting us with the infinity of doing, and then VOILA–death! Ending. Finality.
Having a family is the worse (or is it “worst.”) Simply because it seems so permanent. Particularly in the trenches. Like the diapers and the feedings and the messes will never end. And when they did, I was HAPPY.
But now, I’m 51. With a second foot into the decade that took the lives of my beloved mother and the grandmother I adored.
Plus it’s winter. A particularly hard and cold and frozen week of January in Vermont. The darkest time of year. And in Paris, a bunch of people were butchered.
“We’re ready to die,” said the terrorists.
A friend relays that he had a moment on his mat this week where he felt that it was okay to die. Really okay.
I had that once too. On my knees. In the garden. Rain soaked. My hands in dirt.
What if we woke every day with this aim?
Without saving any love or expression “for later.”
It’s time for me to go on an expedition. A laundry expedition, into my past, to uncover why it is that laundry presents such an undue challenge in my life.
This despite the fact that I know that it is a gift it to have a washer and a dryer right in my very home. Right next to my bedroom, in fact, conveniently tucked inside the upstairs bathroom.
And despite the luxury of so many outfits to wear when my own mother went through high school with a single dress.
And despite the fact that some people, like Cheryl Strayed in Wild have to wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out, even after a shower.
Where is my perspective?
I try to be “one” with the laundry, you know, hang the clothes while I hang the clothes.
I say to myself:
Just this. Just this.
I listen to something pleasant, like classical music or an audio book, while putting socks away.
I press the “easy” button when I’m finished.
Dread. Resistance. Suffering.
Flash back: Our laundry room when I was a teenager. In the basement. Piles of dirty clothes belonging to a family of 8, and later (after the fall) to a family of 10.
My mother once offered to buy my girlfriends and I a magnum of Rose in exchange for doing a day’s worth of it. Otherwise, she did it all herself. Day after day. Night after night. Month after month. Year after year after year. Until she couldn’t any more. And my father finally noticed her, and woke me at 6 am on the first day of summer, proclaiming that it was time to help.
I had been helping with the kids, his kids, all of my life, and I told him that none of the laundry piling up on the cellar floor belonged to me. That I’d started taking mine to the laundromat a year earlier. I was losing too many socks down there.
He insisted that I get out of bed and help: “Now.”
I explained: “I can’t this morning because I had to be at work.” (At his office.) Then I asked him why he never helped.
He fired me.
Fast forward to the chair of my hairdresser. 1990. Both of us recently married. Discussing vacations. She complaining about packing for her husband. I reply that I couldn’t imagine it that I don’t even know where his socks and underwear are stashed.
Her hands freeze, scissors suspended, and she asks: “Who does his laundry, then?” (As if it was inconceivable that someone with a penis do his own laundry.)
Both of my sons did their own, by the age of 5.
So now you know.
All this resistance to laundry each week and I only do my own.
One load. A week.
And still, I suffer.
Maybe if I had helped out with the laundry at home, my mother wouldn’t drink.
Maybe my father wouldn’t fire me. (I really liked that job with him.)
Maybe my family wouldn’t have fallen apart.
What about the fire when I was a kid?
When a sash from the freshly laundered matching Christmas dresses dipped into the furnace on the night after we all went to church together for the first time?
What about the time my husband and I were forced to approach strangers on the street outside a Laundromat in Interlaken, asking for change in a language we didn’t speak.
There is nothing really. Nothing to explain the suffering, and nothing to release the unbearable hold that laundry has on me.
It must be that I’m just lazy, spoiled and ungrateful. I write these things and then go searching for an image for this post, only to discover that each pile of another’s neglected laundry creates a weight of shame inside of me. (Even while my own laundry sits tidily inside baskets.)
And then I hear what I couldn’t tell my father, and didn’t know myself:
I can’ face all that laundry.
I can’t bear the pain and loneliness that it represents inside my mother.
I can’ set foot into that cellar.
I don’t dare see the underbelly of all that is going wrong beneath us; all that has carelessly ignored for too long.
There in the dank, dark crevices of our lives, one might lose not only a sock, but a family, forever.
(addendum: the next morning i faced the laundry on the line; and only later realized that had i put it all away without an ounce of suffering.)
She woke at 4:22 am, but didn’t go back to sleep. If it had been a Monday, she would have demanded it of herself; but since it was Saturday, every minute she stole from the dark would be hers.
She lay in bed considering consciousness, and contemplating whether or not she’d had enough sleep to survive a day. It was a tricky calculation. After a grueling afternoon at work the day before, she had collapsed into bed before 9, only to be wakened an hour later by the door latch and the creaking of the floor and then by snoring.
She woke then as if she had napped, feeling refreshed and better equipped to face her life; but it was 10 pm. It occurred to her then that she should have taken a nap at some point during the day rather than go to bed so early. But where? Under her desk or in some corner at the office? She was once capable of that kind of surrender.
Now she turned and tossed and stewed and sighed, but despite the comfort of her ruby flannel sheets and the Sleep Number bed set at 35, she could not return to slumber.
“I don’t want him to go that party,” she finally said to her husband, about their son.
He had the audacity to reply, “You’ve woken me twice already.”
Eventually, she bled her mind back into sleep, and now at 4:44 am, she decided to rise, tossing her calculations aside.
What will I do, she asked herself as she creaked across the bedroom floor and fumbled for her robe in the dark. Should I wrap presents? Write Christmas cards? Figure out last-minute gifts?
She should, but she didn’t want to. She had grown weary of the work of Christmas. Long ago.
Instead she went in search of eye drops. After sorting and discarding and reorganizing all three shelves of the medicine cabinet, she found the small white bottle on the counter where her son had left it; weeks ago; when he thought he had pink eye.
She worried that she had pink eye too. Her eye had been itching all night. She worried about all the clutter on the bathroom counter. She worried that she no longer cared to address it. There was even hair.
She was tired. Not from waking at 4 am, but from taking care of a house and a home for so many years. She had outgrown it. Prematurely. Her boys still lived there. They were 11 and 16. She should have had them earlier.
Into each eye, she placed a drop, blinked it in, and then tiptoed down the stairs to all the objects calling for attention. The dark woodstove. The kitchen sink. The table covered in projects, half-begun. The counters, continually re-populated with crumbs and butter and clutter. They hollered at her because she had ignored them, and they watched as she took her seat on the couch and whittled away the darkness with words.
Because Christmas was only a week away, she hid from it. It was impossible to keep up. And worse yet, she no longer wanted to. She had outgrown the management of her life. How long had she been at it now? Maybe even before her mother started drinking. How old would she have been then? 10, 11?
It was around that time that she began her career in management. At first it was clubhouses comprised of friends–with meetings and dues, field trips and community service projects. Later there were basement variety shows and backyard performances. There was talent to seek, acts to plan, concession stands and ticket sales to prepare. There was the man who told her that he could report her to the IRS after which she turned non-profit. Girl Scout Cookies, UNICEF boxes and Muscular Dystrophy carnivals.
At 12, she discovered self-employment–her calendar filled every night for a month in advance. There were the large Mormon families of 5 or 6 children, and tidy Protestant ones with only 2–who had exact bedtimes and routines and assigned snacks.
She marveled at the orderliness of one particular mother for whom she babysat every Tuesday from 6:00 to 8:30–she had short, perky hair; tailored jackets; and everything planned in half-hour segments–time for play, time for the Muppets, time for a story, time for bed; while she went off with her dutiful husband to attend something called P.E.T. classes.
She never needed Parenting Effectiveness Training. She could handle kids better than most grownups. It helped that she liked them, and therefore, wasn’t afraid of them.
“We know you mean business,” a student once confided to her during her first year in the classroom.
Before becoming a teacher, she had managed a restaurant. Ever summer during college, she hired and trained 50 peers, most of whom were happy and productive and loaded by August. That first summer, she worked a hundred hours a week. That’s how much it took to turn the place around, and by the second summer, the restaurant doubled it sales, and she reduced her hours to 80. She returned to school that first summer with Mono, but it would be another twenty years before she realized how tired she really was.
Acadia National Park. That’s where it hit her. It was her first solo trip since becoming a parent. She hiked and drank tea and visited the shops in Bar Harbor. Her days were delicately expansive, as if she could finally breathe, but her nights were a total wreck. After more than a dozen years as a mother, she could no longer sleep apart from her family, especially not in a cabin in the woods by herself.
This contrast of terrifying nights with glorious days exposed shocking thoughts. As she drove Acadia’s Ring Road, which circles the park with majestic views, she saw her mini-van turn off the cliff and into the air and down to the sea. The vision came to her again and again, but made no sense. She wasn’t suicidal. She was happy. She was giddily happy.
She was exhausted from trying to be.
Happiness was her thing. By 15, her mother had assigned it to her. If she wanted her sisters to have baths with rubba-dub-dub or lullabies at bedtime, she would have to do it herself. “It’s your turn now,” her mother said.
So she made the Sunday brunches and the popcorn and the Christmas cookies. In her mother’s defense, there were mountains of laundry in the basement, and piles of dishes in the sink, and a demanding husband to serve.
Her mother had been the oldest of eight herself, and had grown weary of families long before she became a parent. Drinking was probably the only way she knew how to let go, just like her mother had done.
This might explain why she now felt the urge to tie one on after her demanding week at work; which was funny, because unlike her mother, she preferred employment outside the home to the full-time drudgery of the housewife; though both roles depleted her in different ways.
Of course she didn’t head to a bar. She went home, and joined the family to light the tree, and then tussled with the world of homemaking; and finally escaped to bed–before any of them.
It’s 6 am now, and the sky is still dark, and everyone else is still asleep. The kitchen has stopped calling, and suddenly looks peaceful in its disarray. The room is gently lit by twinkling glow of the tree, and she feels as if she’s been writing among the stars.
It’s time to start the fire and load the dishwasher and settle in to let others know that she’s thinking of them this Christmas. Maybe she’ll write those cards after all.
It’s not so much her life that she’s outgrown, she realizes, but her orientation to it. That’s what no longer fits. If only she knew how to sew.