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A rite of passage in our house, back in Minnesota, was learning how to do laundry. You knew your carefree afterschool or Saturday hours were over once Mom led you down to the basement and showed you how to sort darks and lights and brights. The five of us kids accepted this new grown-up task as a matter of course and quickly picked up on the basics: only use the dryer if the temp was below freezing outside, otherwise hang everything on the clothesline. Don’t let a dry load sit because it’ll wrinkle. Don’t let a wet load sit because it’ll get moldy. We believed that black mold could form in a matter of minutes and certainly didn’t want to get blamed for that; likewise, we didn’t want to get stuck ironing an entire load of sheets. We listened for the buzzer or we set timers in the kitchen, then dashed up and down the basement steps, one-person assembly lines from full hampers to carefully folded piles of clothes. We did not work together at laundry because my mother knew that someday we would be on our own, so we might as well get used to it now.
By the time it was my turn to learn the ropes, the older kids were out of the house and I was only in charge of laundry for three: me and my parents. It was just enough work to nurture my burgeoning obsessive-compulsive disorder: Oh how I loved to snap those warm dry jeans before folding them into perfect squares, piled up for my father’s drawers. Since the older kids were gone, we could afford better clothes, which meant that some were delicate and needed special cycles. Some pants and shirts couldn’t even go in the dryer or get hung outside: they had to be laid flat. I was more than happy to put down a towel and arrange a silk-blend sweater on top, arms stretched out like an angel. My mother and I bonded over this new phase of laundry-doing, heightened with risk but rich with so many rewards. My father would come home at night to find damp clothes lying all around the house, air-drying on the couch, on the kitchen table, on our beds. He got with the program and bought some new wool deer hunting clothes—bright orange pants and jackets—knowing that for the first time in twenty-five years of marriage, he would not have to pussyfoot around the woods in highwater pants shrunk by his children over the years, or tight jackets with sleeves that only reached to his elbows. He could be an even manlier hunter than he was before.
And then came the man who would become my ex-husband. Always impeccably dressed in ironed shirts and creased pants, he exuded sartorial confidence from the start, with a gold necklace and a thousand-dollar watch to match. When we were first dating, I peeked into his laundry room and saw shirts hanging neatly on hangers, jeans folded and stacked, socks matched and rolled together. The washer and dryer themselves could not have been cleaner. They sparkled. I was in love.
As my husband’s secrets and our brief marriage began to unravel, it became important for us to keep up a good laundry front, this at the very least. We weren’t sleeping in the same bed anymore, but we both had clean sheets tucked in military-style. We weren’t speaking, but we sat on the couch and snapped our clean t-shirts, folding them in silence. Our good sweaters dried perfectly flat as we circled each other, bottles of Shout in our hands.
Eventually I discovered that my ex-husband was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a weak and dishonest man who put on a false front for as long as he could, much like a dickie. The man who did laundry like a professional maid was qualified to do that and nothing more, as it turns out. No wonder he fought for half my pension and spousal support towards the end, trying so hard to take me to the cleaners. “I have to protect myself,” he whined, his wool worn thin, his story full of holes.
Now, years later, free of that tangled mess, I have my own house again with my own washer and dryer. I wash whites and darks together—sorry Mom—but can’t shake the precision of drying: delicates still get hung up, nothing gets shrunk, and nothing gets wrinkled. You won't find a basket of clean laundry sitting for long, and you’ll never find dirty laundry lying around. It’s either neatly tucked away where you can’t see it, or right here on my cautionary shirttails.