Feb 7 2010

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.


Jan 13 2010

Dry with a Twist

It was a workhorse, working so hard – harder than it should have. European appliances are known for their interminable cycles, but even after the very dry setting, lasting much more than an hour, I’d have to add another 20 minutes. And sometimes more. The fatigue was apparent.

I should have cleaned the filter more often. Not the regular lint filter in the door, but the one in the tray underneath, the über-filter. It’s not that this didn’t occur to me. Along with the all other should do things that come to mind over the course of a day, it was on that list I never quite get to.

Last week it just gave up. It turns and turns and turns, but it doesn’t dry. The handy guy who always helps us out with these questions said the repair would be difficult and costly. And he’s a scrapper. If he wouldn’t fix it, then it probably isn’t fixable.

The dryer is dead. Long live the dryer.

Except there won’t be an accession. We’ve decided not to replace it. We’re leaning green, going line-dry.

We all say we care. We do care. But are we willing to change our habits – really change them – to help the environment? It’s easy to justify our choices in the name of convenience, or make excuses about how such a little energy-saving gesture saves nothing compared to the amount of energy wasted by entities far larger than our household. The same goes for recycling. What difference will one family really make, given the amount of garbage that is disposed of so carelessly? Is it even worth the time and effort it takes to wash those bottles and containers and separate plastic from paper from glass? Half the time I wonder if it all doesn’t just end up in the same landfill anyway. Do we really know what happens to the contents of our recycling bins?

In the scope of things, it is a small gesture. One tiny green decision not to replace an appliance. But I am reminded that small changes add up. Maybe the kilowatt hours of electricity we save won’t make a difference, but at least I can mean it when I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I’m concerned and conserving. Walk the green talk, at least a little.

There is another reason that De-facto‘s so pleased with this decision: it’s cheaper. Except for the touchy issue of the crunchy towels. Fortunately (or maybe not) there is a laundromat across the street from our building. So when I’m not dutifully hanging small garments across the wires of the drying rack that creates such an elegant aesthetic in our living room, I’ll be collecting coins and running up and down four flights of stairs with a laundry basket, just to give those towels a softer touch.

How long do you think this will last?