“Let’s fold the towels first,” my sister suggested. “That way, if an atomic bomb falls on us in the next ten minutes, we won’t have to fold any underwear.” It was the mid-1960s, not quite Duck-and-Cover days, but the Cold War was on our minds, as much as it could be for grade-schoolers.
Mom paid us a penny a minute to fold clothes for her. It wasn’t a job I minded, even the underwear. There’s something meditative about folding a basket of clothes, and it’s a satisfying little task, with a clear beginning and ending. Now that I’m a mom, and the chief laundress in the family, I’ve had many opportunities to contemplate the process. I gather clothes from one of our four hampers, noticing the slight smell of mildew if damp rags were tossed in, or the salt and man odor of my husband’s exercise shirt. I sort a pile into one of the fives baskets that have entered my life, and balance one edge of the basket on my hip as I carry the load down the stairs. I hold the railing with my free hand, mindful of the fact that I’ve known or known of three women who suffered either a broken foot, a broken ankle, or a broken head falling down the stairs while carrying laundry. It’s a potentially dangerous business.
In the laundry room, I set the basket down on the rickety wooden chair that was there when we bought the house, and start the water running into the machine. I add liquid soap, dye-free and perfume-free. As I put the clothes in, I inspect for stains that need a squirt of stain remover, but all of this is automatic work that takes little conscious thought.
Usually what I contemplate is how much easier laundry is for me than for millions of women around the world and throughout history. While I’ve never had to beat my clothes against a rock in a river to get them clean, I did work as an 1880s army laundress one summer in a living history exhibit. Dressed in a long dress and woolen apron in the 90 degree heat, I stoked the fire in the iron stove to heat water for boiling the cotton shirt. I washed it with lye soap and scrubbed it on a washboard. Rinsed and fed it into the wringer. It’s a process that holds a certain charm for children who visit living history sites, but as a lifestyle, it leaves a lot to be desired. Especially since the women who actually worked as army laundresses supposedly snipped off the buttons before wringing shirts, and sewed them on again when the shirts were dry.
When I think about how much less time and labor laundry takes for me with my washer and dryer (even though I take advantage of the dry climate and line dry most of the loads), I feel an obligation to the women who went before me and those in the world who lack the convenience. The moral duty I feel is to use my extra time wisely, to honor the creative gifts that I was given. I don’t know why I was born into a life of comfort while others struggle to get by, but I do think I’d compound the injustice of fate if I wasted my free time. So as I load the washer, I let words write themselves across my thoughts. Prayers for those less fortunate rises in my heart.
I also consider the fact that if I only had a few dresses and changes of underclothes, as my great-grandmother did for much of her life, I wouldn’t have such great volumes of laundry to attend to. The dirty clothes rise like tides in the hampers, a sure sign of our affluent, antiseptic culture, which dictates that we wash clothes after a day’s wearing, rather than a week’s.
The world has changed since I was a child, so I no longer think about my life ending abruptly in an exploding atomic bomb. I consider instead whether there will be water enough to wash my clothes in another twenty years of changing climate, but I fold baskets of clothes with little regard to whether I tackle the underwear or towels first. As I fold, I still enjoy the satisfaction of smoothing clean cloth under my hands.
It’s a great satisfaction in a world where much is uncertain and the chores that lie ahead of me seem unending. Unless the bomb does drop, of course.