Category: Life Lessons

Laundry – a Lesson in Gratitude

Laundry – a Lesson in Gratitude

Steve and I were finishing up our visit with Mom at her senior living place. It was my turn to help with Mom’s laundry. Once we finished, we would start the long drive home.

I was careful to follow Mom’s laundry protocol, pre-treating spots on her blouses and separating lights from darks. She inspected the result and found it good. We packed her clothes into mesh bags inside of two wheeled carts and headed down to the beautiful new laundry room in her facility.

Two hours. I breathed deeply. Just two hours. One elevator ride, a quick stroll across the community room, and we’d be underway.

As often happened, Fate had other plans. When we reached the lobby, we learned that there was a water main break, and the beautiful new laundry room was closed. Oh, shit. My sister lives nearby, but I didn’t want to use her washer and dryer; it would take too long, and I needed to go home. I had my own laundry to do.

We quickly formulated a plan B; we headed out to a local laundromat called the Market Basket. As Steve drove and Mom gave directions, I ground my teeth. Grrr, grrr. What was bothering me, I wondered? The answer came in a flood of memory, back to the days of my childhood.

There were nine of us then– Mom, Dad, and seven little kids, living on a teacher’s salary in a tiny ranch house on Long Island. There was always a working washer and dryer, but Mom had a hard time keeping up with the laundry. Diapers were the number one priority. As I got older, I learned to help move the laundry along. Still, you could hide three bodies in the laundry pile in front of the washer in the basement. Dad had given up on his fervent desire for neatly folded clothes; he’d built a rolling bin that fit under the kitchen table. This caught and concealed laundry overflow, a jumble of shirts and socks and underwear.

Yes, laundry was ever present – but it was out of sight, in the basement and in Dad’s homemade bin. Even though you had to dig, you could always find clean clothes or put a load in the washer. But then we moved to Unionville, a small village in the farm country of southwestern New York. For a couple of years, we had a washer and a dryer and continued to take this convenience for granted. But, by 1969, our septic system said, “I’m done.” Mom and Dad explained to the seven of us that the septic was too small, and there was not enough space on our lot to build a bigger one. We would have to use a laundromat every week.

Every Sunday after that, we attended mass, ate breakfast, and then loaded up our baskets with stinky laundry for whoever was at home. Mom and two to three of us kids then made the ten-mile drive across the New Jersey border to Sussex, the nearest town with a laundromat.

Mom would drop us off and head to the supermarket, sometimes with a lucky companion. The rest of us were relegated to the laundromat, a dingy storefront in a half empty strip mall. I was most often chosen for laundromat duty, being deemed responsible and efficient.

The laundromat was not too well appointed; it usually had twelve working washers and a similar number of dryers. In the early years, we could arrive by ten thirty in the morning, and load eight washers simultaneously. We then had a clear line of sight – two hours to complete the wash, dry and fold operation. We read comic books to pass the downtime while the washers and dryers ran, but two hours seemed more like ten.

Soon enough, we realized that we had competition for our kind of laundry volume. The competition was a local commune, not of the hippie kind, but of a conservative Catholic kind. There were about ten families with lots of kids. Some of these kids were our classmates. Luckily, the moms were the only ones who showed up to do laundry. We were, therefore, spared the horror of being recognized by our classmates – doing hard labor like prisoners in a chain gang. We were embarrassed enough as it was. Thinking back, I wonder if those commune moms thought that we were from a commune ourselves, with those mountains of laundry in such a wide variety of sizes and shapes.

On any given Sunday, we could lose the race with the commune moms. Our penalty was an hour’s wait for some of the washers. On these days, we were there for three hours or more. Thus, the commune moms became the enemy, and our laundry routine became a weekly military campaign to win the most washers.

We now organized on Saturday evening. All baskets had to be assembled and ready to go before we went to bed. Our leisurely Sunday breakfast went out the window. Carnation Instant Breakfast for you, Missy. We hit the road by nine fifteen. And prayed. God help my brothers if their stinky socks did not make it into the basket for that week. God help us all.

Back to the present day, we pulled up at the Market Basket Laundromat.

“Quick,” I shouted. “There is another car parking! They’ll take our machines!”

“Relax, Nan,” said Steve, “This is a big place.”

I was skeptical. Sure enough, the place was big, but lots of machines were out of order. Steve did manage to snag five big machines and we loaded them up. So far so good.

But then Steve lost fifty cents in a malfunctioning washer. My mother complained, “So much money!”

“Mom just be quiet!” I snapped, almost shouting.

“Are you okay?“ Steve asked me. “You look ready to explode.”

“You know I hate these places,” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Do yourself a favor,” he said. “Take your Mom out for a coffee and come back in an hour. I can make a few phone calls and move the laundry along. You can come back for the folding.”

Grateful, I shepherded my Mom back to the car. Mom and I drove to a nearby coffee shop where we sat in comfort. I was still tightly wound, gripped in my angst and resentment.

Mom looked at me and said, “You know, you first three babies were so close in age that I always had two of you in diapers. I had no washing machine. I had a bucket of bleach water, the kitchen sink, and the clothesline. We didn’t have much money, and so I didn’t complain. But finally, my mother in law said to your father, ‘Brother (they all called him Brother), if you are going to make so many babies, I think she needs a washing machine.’  I am always grateful to her for that.”

“And thanks,” she said, “for helping me with my laundry. I love you, Nancy.”

My 89 year-old Mommy. She had, in an instant, made me realize that my own experience was not so bad. We were lucky to have facilities to do laundry. We were lucky to have this moment together. We were lucky to be alive.

We returned to the Market Basket and helped Steve finish up. It was not so bad. I slept most of the ride home, purged for the moment of my episode. I now had a name for my affliction: Post Traumatic Laundromat Disorder, or PTLD, for short.

I continue to suffer from PTLD. I still especially hate folding laundry. But I persevere. Most of the time.