Solemn Fold

I pinched the frozen clothespins to liberate the sheet from the line of rope that spans the back porch. The sheet was ice-cold; it’d been hanging outside on the porch all afternoon. I wrapped the yards of damp cotton over my shoulder, trying not to drag anything on the floor as I pulled the rest of the laundry – pillowcases and a few dishtowels – off the line and made my way back inside. I draped the sheet over the three chairs evenly placed beside the dining room table. It will hang there overnight, to shed the last of the dampness and to get warm and fully dry before it is ready to be folded.

This is a ritual that has been enacted in this house, on this porch and in this dining room, for more than fifty years. The tumble-dryer in the laundry room is not unused, but the sheets in this house have never seen the inside of it. No matter what season, my mother’s sheets are always line-dried.

“I need your help with the sheets,” my mother would say, a habitual plea generating the big eye roll from any one of her three children. This might be our Sisyphean task – second only to ironing my father’s handkerchiefs – a pesky chore we were commanded to do and our mother would not tolerate a half-hearted execution. We were guided step by step. “Put your finger in the dart. Pull it, tight. Stretch the sheet first. Flip it and fold. Now walk toward me…”

We found explicit sheet-folding instructions from a mid-twentieth century woman’s magazine, tucked in the back of some drawer. Was this how she learned her special way to fold fitted sheets? Or did she clip it because it matched the technique she’d acquired or invented herself? She would never say. But her systematic laundering and folding of sheets is part of our family lore.

Just picture the linen closet: towels on one shelf, sheets on the other – all squared, fluffed and folded, even towers of perfectly creased cotton. And when you go to make a bed – any bed in the house – the fitted bottom sheet opens itself for the bed, effortlessly, without a single wrinkle.

And the smell, the perfume of all the things that fly in the country air: cut grass, morning dew, apple blossoms in the orchard, summer rain, fecund grapes before the harvest, an icy winter storm. I need only to throw one of those freshly aired sheets over my shoulder or to slip myself into a just-made bed, to re-live my entire childhood with one inhale. Those sheets are an olfactory map of my earliest years.

During the last months of her life, when she was weakening, my mother’s friends admonished her to stop. She should save her energy. It was too easy to fall on the porch, too cold to be out hanging the sheets on the line. She should use the dryer. But my mother persisted. She has always preferred the feel and scent of her line-dried sheets.

This last week, my sister and brother and I washed her sheets every other day, taking turns pulling them from the washer and hanging them outside on the line and bringing them in to warm before folding. We all have the intuition – inherited, no doubt – about when they have been on the line long enough, or when, after hanging inside, they are ready to fold. One of us would call the other into the dining room and in tandem we’d lift the sheet and stand, facing each other, following the steps as though our mother was whispering them to us from the middle of her steady, uninterrupted slumber in the other room.

It is unspoken, but we all know why we’ve done this. This is still her house. We honor her with every load of laundry. Each time the nurse’s assistant came to give a sponge-bath and change the bed, we knew that my mother, even in a semi-conscious state, would be comforted by the familiar perfume of her porch-dried sheets. It was part of our vigil.

Then, this morning, my mother took her last breath.

My brother – her son, the doctor – checked her vital signs. I reached for my iPhone to note the official time of death. My sister wrapped her arms around me as I began to cry. We waited for a long stretch of time, watching to be sure that she would not take another breath, that this wasn’t just some irregularity, that this was the end. When we were certain, we kissed her goodbye, one at a time, and pulled up the sheet to cover her motionless
chest, a sheet that, once they came to take my mother’s body away, was washed and hung on the line to dry. A sheet that, tonight, before bed, we brought in and draped over the backs of the dining room chairs to get warm and fully dry. A sheet that, tomorrow, we will pull and stretch tight, folding it solemnly, like a prayer.

27 Responses to “Solemn Fold”

  • j Says:

    Pure devotion.

  • Nancy Rubery Says:


  • Rayne of terror Says:

    Amazing and beautiful post. You should read it at the funeral. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Harold Says:

    All of our hearts ache for you and your sister and brother.

  • David Says:

    Your words are so beautiful, even in sorrow. I remember the sheets and most of all will always remember your Mom. David

  • Tall Dude in Chicago Says:

    Saying a prayer of peace and comfort for you, your mother, and your whole family.

  • Kunyi Says:

    I’m so sorry for your family’s loss.
    You write so beautifully about death – gently and upholding your love, and your loved ones – just as you do about life. Thank you for sharing this intimate part of your life with us.

  • Christiane Says:

    Beautiful post. So sorry.

  • Leslie Palmer Says:

    Your mom was so great to our family, especially my dad Wes. I loved visiting her and remember the maps on the walls in the study, the great country kitchen and her warmly welcoming us into her home.
    Kind regards,
    Leslie Palmer

  • Santafelee Says:

    Most perfect compassionate way to remember this marvelous woman. Your voice here is wisdom for all of us….Lee

  • Dee Says:

    My eyes have tears in them as I write. Sheets. Yes, I find such comfort in my soft, fresh clean sheets. I’m sorry to hear your mother has passed, but her passing was how many of us can only hope to move on. Surrounded by the children we’ve raised and the comfort of that love. She was blessed.

  • Angela Williams Says:

    The writings of your mother the past few months have been beautiful and so touching. I am remembering the pink wrap she gave me one Christmas when I was visiting you. It was so kind, she didn’t even know me. Your family has a lot of class.

    With great empathy and an on-going hug holding you in support. Angela

  • Ruth Says:

    My love is with you and your brother and sister. She will be missed.

  • Martha (Marfie) Barnett Stephens Says:

    I am so sorry. I will pass the news on to my parents. If you can, please let me know about service plans. Love to you all, Marf

  • Tracy Weisman Says:

    A beautiful eulogy.

  • andi Says:

    With tears in my eyes once again, I’m sending my love to you all. She will be sorely missed.

  • Tom Perry Says:

    My thoughts are with you. Hang in there!

  • Siri Says:

    Thank you for sharing one more story, one more memory. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Peace.

  • Wes Palmer Says:

    I will be with you all in spirit on Wed.



  • Katie Says:

    When I last saw your mother, on December 20, she led us into the dining room and asked Bob to help her fold that day’s drying sheet, following your exact description. Thank you for sharing such a poignant memory.

    I wish I could express my condolences at today’s calling hours, but I am flying out this morning to a conference. I hope to see you all in the spring to celebrate her unparalleled life.

  • Valerie Yust Says:

    Hello—Your writing about your mom, her house and her kindness really resonate. I knew her at NTID and through our common lives in Yates County. (We have a cottage in Vine Valley.)

    She was a great friend to all the audiologists at NTID and she established special relationships with several. I was amazed when I learned of her girlhood in Cuba. Because I was studying Spanish, it came up in our conversation. She demonstrated for me an envious, proper Spanish lisp. And did you know that she, totally unprompted, gave a picture and autograph of Ted Williams from her Cuba days to one of my former colleagues? When she learned of my friend’s husband’s love for Ted Williams, she presented my friend with the photo, autograph and I think a signed baseball, too. It totally shocked me that she would part with such a treasure. And it makes me wonder what other treasures will be in her yard sale!

    If any of her sheets go in it, I would love one.

    All my prayers and regards to you and your sibs. She was very proud of all of you. She spoke of your accomplishments and her travels to visit you every time she came into the NTID Hearing Aid Shop.

    Valerie Yust

  • Jayme Says:

    My heart goes out to you and your family. You have written such a beautiful post that it should be shared with your family as part of the eulogy.

  • Betty Shamas Says:

    From the title of this post, I didn’t know it was going to be the sad news.
    You are all in my heart and prayers….along with precious memories of
    your Mom. Sending love, Betty

  • Butch Odom Says:

    Linda just shared this story with me. I am so sorry for the loss of your mom, but what a beautiful tribute to her. You are in my prayers.


  • magpie Says:

    I’m so sorry. And so moved by this lovely post. And your devotion to her, and her house and her ways.

    Peace to you and your family.

  • Lou Leene Says:

    What a beautiful memory and so beautifully written. A day won’t pass without me thinking of her–and I think she will walk very closely with you three every day. I miss her. Lou

  • sweetsalty kate Says:

    I’m fumbling around here, looking for your religion/politics post that you’d shared on my fear post (broken link) and I’ve been reading through, and just wanted to tell you that you’re a beautiful writer. This was stunning, and graceful and loving. I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother, but you’ve done her a lovely honour here.

    Now. Teabagger-hunting. xo

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