The Laundry Chronicles


This morning the sheets called to me, loud and persistent, in the pitch the puppy uses when he needs to go out. They whined so loudly I stopped hearing the dull and persistent thud of the bills stacked on my desk. The sheets insisted on being washed today, though it was not their turn in the rotation, which implies a rotation exists. I aspire to an orderly progression of house-cleaning: the sheets and towels washed at regular intervals; dusting and vacuuming on fixed days; the refrigerator scrubbed weekly. Or monthly or any time beyond scattered visits from my mother, when she scrubs in disgust. She doesn’t say anything. Her wispy energy is indictment enough. She unloads expired food, washes the shelves in sudsy water. Each act is simple and quick. I should remember it regularly, but I don’t. Instead, my housekeeping exists at the mercy of sheets and dog hair and moldy bread. This morning, the sheets were boisterous, so I flitted room to room, collecting them. Flat sheets, fitted sheets, pillow cases. Wash, dry, fold. Repeat. 

When I take the sheets from the dryer, they warm and soothe with the scent of falling rain or springtime meadows. I can’t remember which detergent I’ve bought. Usually, it’s the Costco brand, available in bulk and surprisingly pleasant, as generics run – floral and citrusy without becoming cloying. 

Sometimes, after I’ve opened a new package and run a load, I sneak outside where the dryer vents to the driveway, alongside the outdoor trash cans, and breath the steam the house exhales. It is fresh and edifying. I can hear the puppy whine. The trash overflows. The garden statue has been decapitated under mysterious circumstances. But standing in the driveway, I feel reassured. A house which exhales such bright and salubrious breath must hold joy. 

Fitted Sheets 

“The ability to fold a fitted sheet neatly,” my sister once told me, “is the real mark of adulthood.” When you can open your linen cupboard to see neat stacks of bed linens, rather than rumpled piles, that is the moment you know you have responsible life in hand.  

My sister and I both were married a couple of years, with a few degrees and several kids between us, when we each learned the knack of it. It dawned on us separately like a math problem we’d been puzzling over that suddenly made sense. We could no longer grasp why it’d been so tricky. We were giddy at the burst of maturity. This maturity flowed from the time fitted sheets demand, the precision required to line up the elastics, fit them together, flatten and tuck, adjusting the contours to the particular requirements of each sheet. We were proving ourselves disciplined, adept at routine, but flexible, too, able to adapt to the needs of the moment. 

“Why didn’t mom and dad teach us this?” she asked one day. “They knew – their linen closet was super neat.” It was like they’d kept a secret from us.

“Probably because Dad did laundry,” I replied. “Maybe he didn’t think it needed teaching. Maybe you’re just supposed to absorb it, like osmosis.” 

“Maybe,” she replied. “But Mom was fussy about how the towels were folded.” Our mother required towels be folded into even thirds, creating perfect rectangles. 

With this conversation in mind, I attempted a “fitted sheet” clinic for my adolescent children one summer afternoon. They’d be launching soon and I felt compelled to prepare them. I called the kids aged twelve and over to the family room, where I’d piled their sheets. When I opened the door to the closet that morning, the sheets fell onto me like a cartoon-gag. The moment felt opportune. I subscribed to the “Watch one, Do one, Teach one” theory of instruction that was the basis of my husband’s medical training. I folded a twin-sized fitted sheet, demonstrating the process. I showed them how to line up the elastics. Smooth the sheet. Fold. Line up, smooth, fold. Repeat. The kids stared at me. The oldest rolled his eyes and checked his phone. 

“You need to learn this, guys,” I said. I tried to keep my tone light, but also firm to convey the urgency. They felt no urgency. “We need to put these sheets away again, anyway.” I continued, “So they stay in the cabinet when the door is open. And you’re gonna help.” I took away the eldest’s phone for emphasis. They each took a sheet. I talked them through the process. Line up; smooth; fold; repeat. I encouraged and reassured. They sniped and laughed. As we walked through the process, they skulked away one by, disappearing unnoticed as teenagers do, leaving stacks of rumpled sheets in their wake. 

My husband was at work during our folding clinic. He’s been a surgeon for nearly twenty years, but only recently figured out the knack of the fitted sheet. He’s a bright and conscientious man. At any given moment, he can receive a call from the hospital and rattle off his patients’ medical history, including current and past medications, dosages, and possible interactions. He pays attention to details, knows his responsibilities, understands his limitations, which include punctuality and laundry. A few years ago, he took to buying only black socks because he couldn’t accidentally dye them a sickly bubblegum pink. He recently developed a DIY bug, leading him to reconfigure the linen cupboard in our bathroom, building a new shelf and reorganizing the existing unit. With his circular saw and a fold-away saw horse, he measured and cut, re-measured and adjusted according to our home’s wavy walls. One evening, he called me to the bathroom. His voice was urgent, but not panicky. As I ran, I wondered if there’d been a slip of the saw, if the tile was gouged or his hand were injured. “Look!” he said. He showed me the stacks of sheets he’d replaced on the shelves. Even the fitted ones were neat. 


Yesterday, the beach towels were obstreperous. Months ago, as summer wound to a close, I washed and folded these giants, with their bold fluorescent prints. I slipped them neatly into the back of the linen cupboard to wait out the winter. I came upon them yesterday, a damp and smelly mountain chain, spilling from my son’s room into the hallway. I had a moment of befuddlement. Why were the beach towels on the hallway floor so late in the fall? Hadn’t I hidden them? I was sure I did. My impulse was to yell at the boy, using the time worn-phrases of my motherhood, “Clean up that mess! What is wrong with you? Why, in God’s name, do have fourteen towels on the floor?” That last one – fourteen towels on the floor­– isn’t a standard phrase of motherhood. It’s a technique, practiced and refined. You start with the catchphrase “Why in God’s name” and append the current scenario in order to grab the child’s attention. Had he been home when I discovered the towels, instead of at school, the boy would have mumbled an “I don’t know” or a “GOD, Mom!” He’d add an eye-roll for emphasis. I would have stomped away, and he would have muttered under his breath. The mountain of towels would remain until we’d enact the scene a few more times, at least, the dramatized moments of childhood’s end. But…what were they doing there? How did they get out of the back of the closet and onto the floor? 

The boy is seventeen. We squeeze college visits between his soccer games and school commitments. I watch him figuring out the principles of life. What are his goals? How diligently will he work to achieve them? He has stopped eating cookies to give himself a boost in the impending track season. What does it mean to be honest? To live with integrity? He knows the patterns of cheating at school and wonders what they mean, if anything, since “everybody does it.” How is one generous, with time and attention? What does it mean to care? He notices the patterns of his littlest sister’s sadness when the girls at school won’t play with her. “Izz-zay,” he calls her name with exaggerated silliness. He talks to her, pretending he has twelve marshmallows in his mouth. His goofiness makes her giggle. 

Yesterday, the only principle the boy appeared to have ascertained definitively is that one must never reuse a towel. I stood in the hallway considering. I have never recognized the towel imperative as a moral foundation upon which family life is built. My boy, though, seems to cling to it with religious fervor. He attends multiple sports practices per day. He averages two, sometimes three, showers daily. Two to three towels: taken, used, discarded, and left damp on the floor. I installed a hook in his room for the specific purpose of hanging his towels, allowing them to dry for reuse. He rejected the concept. One of his uncles once told him that a dermatologist said you should use a towel only once before washing. He plucks this advice from his memory at opportune moments. The breadth and height of his towel mountain indicate that he has taken the dermatological imperative to heart. Or at least to convenience, which I decide, may be his true foundational imperative. 

By rights, I think the boy should be boxed in the ears and made to wash the towels by hand. When I was little, the washboard my great-grandmother used for her family’s laundry hung in our kitchen. My mother remembers the washboard; she clambered with her sisters to churn, churn, churn her grandmother’s wringer before hanging the wash on the backyard line. I imagine my boy being made to wash his mountain of towels by hand over the washboard, rubbing them clean with a bar of caustic soap. I imagine him rinsing them clear in the rivers that flow by our house. His hands would become cold and cracked and chapped. Surely, that would teach him to use towels responsibly. Responsibility is another life principle he ought to be working out, but the washboard is too old and warped to teach that. 

Standing over the towel mountain, I wonder if I should take this opportunity to re-assert parental authority. I could seize the towels, wash them myself, and reinstate the Great Towel Embargo of 2016. 

One day, a few years back, our littlest girl, then around 5 and just showering on her own, wanted to take a shower, but no towels could be found. The scenario made no sense. Although my husband and I consider ourselves minimalists in theory, in reality we veer strongly toward being hoarders, particularly in the realm of useful household items. Over the years, I developed a color-coded towel system. Parents’ towels are slate-gray, oversized bath sheets. Guest towels are plush in deep-claret red. The kids’ towels include all others, mostly old bath towels, bleached thin and flimsy over years. Across all levels, we must have fifty towels. Possibly more, since we refuse to throw away anything that approximates usefulness. That we couldn’t find even one to cover the smallest body in the family was inconceivable. We traced a path, kid room to kid room, finding towels stashed in corners and closets and under beds. Aggravation merged with irritation, and a family meeting was scheduled.

In our household, family meetings are rare. The term is polite code for “Mom and Dad are have moved beyond normal-level pissed, so be ready for a lecture.” Usually, my husband calls the meetings after I’ve stomped around for a few days, saying things like, “I can’t take it anymore!” and “You people are killing me!” My husband will pull out his doctor voice, the one which exudes soothing rationality and is usually reserved for patients who’ve been given upsetting news and need guidance and care. He’ll say something to me like, “If you’re this upset, we should talk about it? Let’s have a family meeting.” 

At the appointed time, the kids shuffled to the kitchen, took their places around the table. Their eyes were downcast, in contrite expressions they knew would expedite the process. The operation usually functions like a summer thunderstorm–complaints grow to frustration, frustration crescendos to yelling. The storm rages, then breaks. The kids expected the normal progression of things. Calm dad. Irate mom. She explodes. It all blows over. Blah, blah, blah. Instead, our roles were reversed. My husband launched the meeting in his best doctor voice, but quickly spun himself frothy. 

“The water bills are obscene!” he said. 

“And the floors! Do you understand the damage wet towels will do to wood?” he yelled.

“These towels,” he sputtered, “You’ve had it too easy. Obviously, you don’t understand the value of work. If you did, you wouldn’t leave your towels all over like this.”

His tone started to sound like his father, a man who still scolds his middle-aged children for being spoiled suburban kids, rather than the tough city-kid he was. 

I intervened with a classic redirect. I pointed to the stack of towels on the kitchen table. In response to excessive towel consumption, I explained to the children, we are rationing towels forthwith. Six drab towels, one for each child. 

“One towel,” my husband emphasized, “One. Only One.”

“Hang it up to dry after you shower,” I told them, “and you should probably wash it every few days.” 

“You’re rationing our towels?” the oldest boy asked, “like sugar in World War II?” He was taking a world history class at the time.

“Oh my Go-od” said the oldest girl, “I cannot believe you guys. This is like prison.” She was thirteen at the time, and only mildly prone to dramatizing. 

The current of the meeting returned to grandpa-isms.

“Prison!” snapped my husband, “you think this is prison?! Prison with all the food you want? And whatever you need for school? And cable tv? You think prison has cable?” 

“It does,” said second oldest boy, entirely missing the point. “I saw an interview on ‘30 for 30.’” ESPN was his passion. 

The oldest boy opened a different line of negotiation. “What if,” he said, “we need extra towels? Like, what if the bathtub overflows and we have to clean up the water before it floods and ruins the floors completely?” 

It was an ingenious attempt, tapping into the concerns about the integrity of the house and overall threat of catastrophe, and inverting them to secure more towels for himself and his siblings. The boy is perceptive. 

My husband was not cowed. “Why would the bathtub overflow?” my husband countered, “I’ll tell you why. Because irresponsible kids forget to turn off the water, as if we’re made of money, to pay, pay, pay the damn bills.”

We were devolving quickly at this point, all of us careening like toy-tops, in widening circles.

“I don’t think it’s fair that I have to wash my own towel,” said second oldest daughter. “They don’t have to.” She pointed at her two younger sisters. 

“But I don’t know how to do the wash,” said second youngest daughter. To be fair, I hadn’t taught her yet.

“I’m never allowed to have a towel again!?” whined the youngest child “But my hair’s gonna make my pillow wet and I won’t sleep ever again.” 

“Extra towels will be handed out on a case-by-case basis,” I pronounced. “You can talk to me and Dad if you really, really need another towel.”

With that, the meeting adjourned. The kids slumped off with their flimsy towels. My husband and I remained at the kitchen table. We hoped we’d drawn a successful line, but feared things hadn’t gone to plan. Successful embargoes require sanctions, and sanctions require attentive diligence. Neither of us was inclined toward diligent towel regulation. Blind eyes were turned; a smuggling ring emerged. Little sisters slipped behind shelves in the linen cupboard, where I’d hidden stacks and stacks of towels, out of my sight and mind. The girls grabbed towels from the dark void of the storage space and were paid in cookies or candy or quarters, whatever was at hand. The towel embargo fostered a full-scale criminal operation, our kids co-conspirators. The extent of the smuggling became clear when piles of damp towels reappeared and a mildew scent invaded the household. “At least they cooperated with each other,” my husband said. 

Yesterday, I recalled all of this while I stood over the towel mountain. What would I teach my boy, this 17-year-old trying to work out the principles of life, if I were to clean up his messes? Would yelling and nagging and boxing of ears help him to grow? I couldn’t say, any more than I could determine whether we’d shown him enough diligence or integrity or compassion to send him confidently into a messy and confused world. In the end, the smell prevailed. The dank scent of mildew overpowered me the longer I stood in the hallway. I packed as many towels as I could into the washer, adding odor-busting pre-wash to the Costco-brand detergent. The rest remained in a heap, blocking his door. “Via Media,” I told myself. Virtue through the middle path. All the while, though, I imagined the boy trudging to the river bank, washboard and caustic soap in hand, where he would rinse his towels into eternity. 


One recent afternoon, we had a laundry eruption. A few minutes after my three little girls arrived home from school, a thud shook the house. A shriek followed. A door slammed. Screaming ensued.

“Idiot!” screamed the first little voice.

“Shut up!” replied the second.

“I hate you!” Voice one again. 

“(Growl) You’re such a brat!” came the reply.

A momentary pause.

“I can’t stand you!” second voice continued. “You’re the worst sister ever. E-e-e-v-v-er!” 

Another pause. Then a stomp, followed by footsteps, running. One kid tried to beat the other to the stairs. 

They were coming for me. I considered hiding, but before I could move, two brown heads, two freckled, tear-streaked faces appeared before me. There were scratches down the older girl’s arm. The younger girl, my littlest, was red-faced and seething. Her teeth were clenched, and she emitted a low-rumbling growl. I refer to this girl as “my exclamation mark at the end.” She embodies exclamation – joy, anger, fear, sadness burst from her. 

“She scratched me!” said the outraged sister. 

She is ten, two years and three months older than her younger sister. They are numbers five and six in our child-parade, more spacing than any of the other children in our family. Perhaps there is too much space. 

“The little brat! She scratched me because I did her laundry,” continued outraged sister. 

The girls share a room, and, as such, they share laundry baskets.

“And why did I do her laundry, Mom? Huh? Huh? Why?” she added. Child Five has a flair for the dramatic. In most scenarios, she is quiet, keeping the drama in her mind. With her sister, though, she releases.

“I did her laundry because you make me! You! Make! Me! And I end up with scratches!” she screamed. 

She had a point. A few years ago, just before the Great Towel Embargo, I instituted a family tradition. On a child’s tenth birthday, the kid receives the usual presents and cake, with an additional bonus of detailed instructions on using the washer, sorting clothes by color and fabric, cold versus hot cycles, and the importance of clearing the lint filter. I spin it that it’s an exciting step into the world of grown-up responsibilities. I say something like, “Now that you’ve reached double digits, there’s so much more you can do on your own – like wash your clothes!” The kids don’t believe my propaganda. They know my feelings about laundry and its endless demands. This child, upon receiving her laundry lesson, was surprisingly peppy. “I’d rather be in charge of it,” she told me, “that way I can make sure I my uniforms are clean for school ‘cause you forget most of the time.” 

As she took the initial instructions well, I pushed a little further. “You know,” I said, “since you share the hampers in your room, you’ll have to wash your sister’s clothes, too.” I didn’t plan on pointing this out upfront. I figured their clothes would comingle, and the younger girl’s would catch a ride to the laundry room, like stowaway stinkbugs on cargo ships, moving from Asia to North America, unobtrusive and unnoticed, until they covered the Eastern Seaboard in buzz and stink. The ten-year-old assumed the laundry job so happily, I aimed for pre-emptive agreement regarding her sister’s laundry. With that, I’d have bargaining power, should she attempt a laundry-labor action, refusing to wash her sister’s clothes after a squabble over who left out the monopoly game or who tore whose homework first. My negotiating tactics were unfair to a ten-year-old, but the stakes felt high with these youngest children. With this shift in responsibility, I officially moved from starting laundry quarterback to the back-up role. When I asked her directly if she’d wash her sister’s clothes, she replied, “I figured I’d have to.”

That afternoon’s trouble originated from a classic case of hamper-confusion. In the morning, the littlest girl put her “clumfy leggings” in the laundry basket she thought was clean clothes. She planned to wear them after school, when she ritually strips her school uniform, with its scratchy collar and polyester conformity, to reclaim herself. The leggings are a slate blue, with tiny pink flowers, made of the softest cotton blend. The basket she chose actually contained dirty clothes, and her sister threw them in the wash before they trundled off to school. When she arrived home in need of her clumfiest clothes, she found them limp and wet in the washer. 

The littlest girl coined the term clumfy while a toddler. It’s become part of our family dialect. It means comfortable and soft, but with an emotional dimension–soothing, comforting, secure, like a like baby blanket that envelopes you. When my oldest girl heads to late-night soccer practices by herself, which require a dark, cold drive home, she tells me, “I’ve got my clumfy sweatshirt,” and I know she’s prepared. This youngest child needs clumfy when she returns from school. We all understand this, hamper-confusion aside. She detests school and all it stands for – sitting still, listening quietly, doing fractions when she wants to do art, doing art when she wants to read. Her brain does not mesh with the other little girls’. After a day of such strains, she needs clumfy. When hamper-confusion strikes, explosions ensue, and her older sister bears the brunt. 

I don’t know the extent to which hamper-confusion exists in other households, but in ours, it’s significant. We have laundry baskets of every shape and variety – plastic, mesh, wicker; folding, collapsible, solid; long-handled, short-handled, no-handled. Currently, the assortment lines the hallway outside the children’s rooms. Which are dirty, which are clean, no one really knows. When I stepped down from the starting line-up, I did not envision kerfuffles. The process was so clear to me – wash, dry, fold, put-away. The children have not taken much to folding. They struggle with the transfer of wet clothes from the washing machine into the dryer. The timeliness required stymies them. Removing one’s clothes from the laundry room, altogether, seems an unattainable goal. Instead, they live from an endless rotation of laundry baskets. Someone forgets their stuff in the washer, someone else dumps that load, wet and lumpy, into a laundry basket so they can take over the machine. When the first kid returns, her clothes have mildewed. She’s angry; she has to start the process all over again. Another kid leaves his clothes in the dryer when his brother needs to de-wrinkle his pants. Those clothes go straight into the nearest hamper, dirty or clean, it doesn’t matter. Screaming ensues. Blame. Tears. There’s an entire basket, the largest we own, dedicated to unmatched socks. Soccer socks, dance socks, school socks, running socks, all of them lonely and unmatched, hanging out in the hallway. 

I’ve taken to buying more and more baskets in order to tame the chaos. I’ve tried color-coded systems: white laundry baskets for clean clothes; blue for dirty clothes; and green for anything about which you’re not sure, but probably should be washed anyway. I’ve tried material-coded systems: mesh for dirty; hard plastic for clean; wicker for whatever can wait. We’ve had family meetings. I created a “Laundry Steps” chart, pinned it to the wall above the washer. Chaos prevails. When the family meetings were called and the chart was pinned, the oldest kids tried to explain. “We don’t care, Mom,” said the oldest girl. “It doesn’t bother us,” said the oldest boy. Hadn’t both screamed at each other recently, when soccer uniforms needed laundering under tight deadlines and only one uniform sock was in the basket and the other unaccounted for and didn’t he borrow it for his last game? The willingness with which my kids concede to chaos worries me. I consider whether I should institute more systems, more structures, assert more authority.  

When the little girls went to bed that night, after the laundry explosion, I stood outside their door. The scraped arms had been soothed and apologies forced. Punishments had been meted. Laundry was folded. The girls usually chatter before falling asleep. They use a slow, sleepy, clumfy tone. 

“Sara said only the girl scouts could play at recess again,” said the little one. 

“What’d you do?” asked the ten-year old.

“I sat on the top of the jungle gym till they blew the whistle to go in,” little replied.

“By yourself?” 


“Tomorrow, you should play with us,” said her sister, referring to herself and her older friends.

“Okay,” said the little one. 

With that, they slept.  


Several years ago, back when I had complete control of the laundry baskets, I undertook a laundry strike. I can’t remember exactly when. I like to believe it was sometime before I’d acquired the maturity of folding fitted sheets, but it was definitely after most, if not all, the kids came along. I clearly remember various babies and toddlers hanging around at the time. This benchmark encompasses a decade of my life, so it’s hard to say with precision when this took place. 

It does explain how the laundry strike came about. With spit-up and diaper accidents, cut elbows and bloody noses, stomach bugs brought home from school and passed kid-to-kid ad nauseum, laundry piled around me like snow banks in pictures of Alaskan winters. I had a recurrent nightmare then. In my dreams, tiny socks and undershirts, blankets and towels, jeans and shorts fell from the sky, covering me bit by bit, while I gasped for air, buried alive by an avalanche of linen generated by those I loved.

Since the children were all little and my husband trundled off to work each day, the laundry largely fell to me. I washed, dried, folded, put away—wash, dry, fold, put away, just in time for the next onslaught of illness or mayhem or daily life to replenish the hampers. In those years, I never saw the bottom of the laundry bin. Things might have been different if I could accept the constant presence of dirty clothing, if I could turn it into a friend of some sort, like a mildly annoying neighbor who’s always around chattering at you, but also makes you feel secure. Sure, the neighbor won’t leave, even when you really need to shower, but at least you know that if you slip in that shower, someone will find you before you bleed to death on the bathroom floor. That sort of neighbor lets you know you’re not alone. 

At the time of the laundry strike, I was never alone. There were always little people coursing through my day. My recurrent dream, then – the equal and opposite of the nightmare – was to sit in a cushy chair, in a cool, dim room, enveloped by that shadowy blue color which comes after dusk, just before you switch on the lights. Silence and stillness. After nights when I had this dream, I awoke feeling hopeful.

In truth, the laundry strike was a targeted action, more akin to a labor slowdown than a full-on picket line. According to the terms of my division of labor, I handled everyone’s dirty clothing through the folding stage. At that point, anyone old enough to manage, roughly three years old onwards, was responsible for putting their clothes into drawers. For the most part, the children understood the terms of the agreement. They didn’t always comply: nagging was routine and yelling was occasionally necessary. I suspect their comprehension grew from their proximity to me. They couldn’t escape me and my requirements, any more than I could escape them and their demands. 

My husband, however, seemed perpetually confused. I washed his clothes, folded them nicely, and placed them in a tidy stack on the arm chair next to his dresser. Over days to weeks, the pile would grow and grow, turning into a grotesque mound, pawed through like the carcass of roadkill on the side of the highway. Eventually, the hideous mess would overcome me, and I’d put his clothes away myself. 

Next, I tried placing his nicely folded clothes on his side of the bed. I assumed he’d put his socks into the drawers if they obstructed his path to sleep at night. Instead, the clothes carcass shifted from the chair in the corner to the floor directly next to the bed. I tried to ignore it there. Most of the time, I couldn’t even see it. The trouble was that as the pile grew over the course of more days and weeks, it obstructed the door to the bathroom, which was inconvenient, especially in the middle of the night when I wanted to scoot a toddler with a tummy ache off the carpet. The toddler would stumble, triggering a volcanic eruption and adding a layer of vomit to the decomposing laundry. My husband’s clean clothes were now quite dirty, and the laundry bin was overflowing. Again. 

Had I possessed the maturity of the fitted sheet then, I’d like to think I would have handled the situation differently. I would have addressed the problem directly, calmly discussing my demands and expectations with my husband. I would have said something like, “As you are a sentient and responsible adult, I’d like you to put the clothes I lovingly wash, dry, and fold for you into your own drawers.” It was a simple request, had I made it. And likely, my husband would have responded, “Sure. I was going to get to it, but I was waylaid by your seventeen other simple requests and the eight calls from the hospital when I got home from working fourteen hours today.” And I would have been reminded that he was, in fact, working very hard for our family, just as I was working very hard for our family, and we could have been a unified team of love and togetherness.  

Instead, I seethed and stomped and stopped washing his clothes. “Now he’ll see there’s no magic laundry fairy.” I thought. “Now he’ll see all the goddam work I do for him.” The error in my plan was forgetting that his mind works completely differently than mine. Over a course of weeks, I ceased doing his laundry. I carefully sorted through the piles of unwashed mess, picking out and setting aside anything that belonged to him, including the vomit-coated laundry. The smell became overwhelming, making me gag when I approached. 

My husband didn’t seem to notice. When he ran out of socks or underwear, he’d stop at Walmart on his way home from work and buy more. He didn’t buy them in anger or with snark. He just thought, “I’m out of socks. I’ll get some more.” That is how his mind works. There is a problem; he finds a solution. Linear, uncomplicated. He never questioned why there were no more undershirts in his drawer, any more than he had previously questioned how clean undershirts appeared there. He never wondered why his pile of dirty clothes kept growing and growing. I’m not sure he ever really saw the pile. Sure, he avoided tripping over it, but he didn’t see it as real, in need of attention. Like when you walk through crowded subway stations, you see the thousands of people thronging around you so you don’t step on them, but you don’t really see them, as real and whole individuals with whom you could connect. My husband, having been raised by a hoarding mother and a violent, alcoholic father, simply doesn’t see or question mess or conflict. I suspect it was his survival mechanism as a kid. With chaos and discord all around, he blocked out, moved around, did whatever he needed in order to continue marching forward. To ask why and how and what anything meant was to unseal a basket of anger and bitterness and abuse over which he had no control and no escape. He became linear in his thinking and developed an intense love of math, wherein the world was predictable and sane. 

I, having been raised by perfectionistic parents reacting to their own alcoholic parents, see and question everything. In the mid-eighties, when my older brother went to church wearing khaki pants and docksider shoes WITHOUT socks a la Miami Vice, my parents sat him down and lectured him for an hour, while the rest of us lingered in the family room next door, intrigued at the drama and smug in our own non-rebellion. 

“What are you trying to say by wearing shoes without socks?” my mother said. 

“To church,” my father clarified. As if we were confused about where we’d been. 

“What statement are you making?” they continued, “and why are you making it?” 

It could not be simply the fashion among 17-year-olds at the time. No, there must be layers of shame and rebellion and emotional meaning imbued into the lack of socks. And, by God, my parents were going to root it out before it festered into something ugly and destructive, like the Birkenstocks and drugs my cousins dabbled in. To my parents’ credit, by the time I was a teenager in the early-nineties, they had grudgingly accepted the fashions of the day. They even bought me some knock-off Birkenstocks. But the greater lessons were learned. Everything meant something more than what it appeared. Symbolism lurked in every word and action, requiring analysis, deconstruction, questioning to root out the whys and wherefores. Laundry was not just laundry, a chore to be managed and handled in a large family, overrun by small children and a demanding career. No, it was a referendum on love and attention and value and worth, and I was losing that vote. In the laundry-work slowdown, he was supposed to see what a shining star I was.

Except, he didn’t even notice the stoppage. He trundled along, oblivious and unfazed as ever. His obliviousness made me more huffy, puffy, and prone to stomping. One morning, a while into my strike, I was sorting the laundry, removing John’s stuff, as was routine. Along the way, I started counting what I found. There were normal amounts of after-work shirts and jeans. Not too many. The scrubs he wore to work daily were laundered by his office. But the socks, underwear, and undershirts were overwhelming. Twenty-seven pairs of underwear. Forty-six, single Fruit of the Loom athletic socks. Eighteen white Hanes undershirts. I had noticed, of course, that the dirty hampers were perpetually overflowing, no matter how furiously I washed-dried-folded. It was a terrible mess. With my laundry-action, I purportedly dropped one-eighth of my laundry responsibilities, but my work load increased. 

At first, I was annoyed. “Goddam it. He hasn’t suffered at all,” I thought. 

Then I was puzzled, like the Grinch on Christmas Eve, listening to the Whos down in Whoville singing away. 

“Why hasn’t he learned anything? Why did I want him to suffer? How did this happen? Is he defective? Am I?” 

I sat in the laundry room, surrounded by piles of half-sorted laundry, the stench of old vomit and dried sweat surrounding me, and began to question my assumptions. Maybe laundry was, indeed, just laundry. Maybe it wasn’t a symbol of servitude; maybe it wasn’t evidence that my husband thought himself better, more important than I; maybe it wasn’t a declaration of apathy or disdain? Why was I so disgusted by the servile role? Was I too good for it? Too smart? Too educated? Why did I want a shiny star for doing the most basic work of life? And maybe, if the work was suffocating me, the volume of laundry constantly threatening to topple over and kill me in an avalanche of onesies and t-shirts, maybe I should say something? Do something different? Perhaps the messes aren’t results of chaos and laziness? Maybe they are simply the by-products of a household abounding in curiosity and connections and children and life.

I puzzled then, but had no answers I wanted to face. Instead, I loaded the washer, everyone’s clothing mixed together.

That evening, with a chunk of his wardrobe cleaned and folded, waiting neatly on the chair, I asked my husband to put his clothes away. He complied almost immediately, which made me believe he was aware, in his own foggy way, that we’d been in conflict the past few weeks and that the conflict was now subsiding. When he returned to the kitchen, I was washing the dishes, ensconced in the shadowy blue of dusk, before you turn on the lights. 

“I put my clothes away,” he said. “But do you know where all that underwear came from? I haven’t been able to find any for weeks, and now I can’t fit them in the drawer.” 

I was inclined to snark and call bullshit. “You bought all that damn underwear,” I wanted to say, “How can you not know where it came from?” But knowing him, his linear mind and guileless temperament and knowing myself, my inclination to imbue everything with meaning drenched in symbolism, I resisted.

“Hmm.” I replied, “I wonder.”


I recently found a polyester mesh bag I lost some time ago. It was squished in the sliver between the dryer and the wall, coated in the grey dust of old dryer lint. I purchased the bag a few years back for washing the lacy, pretty things I bought to make myself feel pretty and youthful. Some dainties came out of the wash twisted and frayed. They needed the protection of a delicates bag. But at some point, I abandoned the pretty and lacy. I found the bag while I was looking for a sock I purchased to make myself feel comfortable and warm. Two socks went into the wash; only one returned. I love those socks, turquoise wool with magenta soles. They are happiness in knit, but currently, incomplete. I kept the one sock in my drawer for months, still searching for its match. It’s not in the sock basket, not behind or under the washer or dryer, not attached with static electricity to the rest of the laundry that’s churned through the cycle. I haven’t searched the kids’ rooms. Haven’t searched the entirety of their laundry baskets. I believe, with no formal proof, the happiness will be complete again.

My husband recently started therapy. After a lifetime spent shoving dirty laundry into the hamper of his soul, the basket started to buckle, spilling socks and underwear and smelly sweat clothes hither and yon. The therapist asked to meet with me, to get my understanding of the laundry situation. 

“It’s been my experience,” he told me, “that exceptionally bright people have a hard time with empathy. The intellect is so powerful, it doesn’t feel the need to integrate emotions.”

I wondered what this meant for my intellect and emotional integration. My laundry, I think, remains sorted and contained. Is this a sign of inferior intellect? Emotional regulation?

The therapist added, almost gratuitously, that large families are generally unwise. He quoted a Bible verse at me about failing to count the costs of all these children. The judgement struck me as unhelpful. There isn’t a generous return policy on children, and, mostly, I wouldn’t want to exercise it if there were. I’ve seen the laundry rooms of people with just a few kids, people who counted the costs to the nearest penny. They had messes too. Not long ago, a mother of two children, seven years apart in age, saw our overflowing sock basket. She was at our house for a birthday party full of loud adolescent boys. I tidied a bit, but not all, of the laundry mess. “Thank God you have one, too!” she exclaimed, “I always think we’re the only ones.”

Driving home from the meeting, I thought about my other sock. I compiled a list of places I could look, places already searched. When I got home, one of the kids was doing laundry. The house exhaled its bright, citrusy scent. The garden statue’s head was reattached with some concrete epoxy my husband found at the hardware store. It looked secure. 

Perhaps my sock, with its turquoise and magenta joy, will return soon. 


  • E.M. Mariani holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. "The Laundry Chronicles" is her second easy in Cutleaf—her first, "Mothers' Teeth" was published in March 2022.

  • Stills from The Third Man, a 1949 film directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard, and depicts the chaos and corruption in Vienna following the Second World War.