If I tell you about my love for clean laundry, will you think I'm a Pollyanna agent of the detergent industry, sent here to shame you into disinfecting all the piles of dirty clothes that spill from your hampers? I promise you I'm not. I hate cleaning. I'm not a hunky, earringed man trying to seduce you into mopping your kitchen floors. Our bathroom could be Exhibit A in a criminal trial about the bubonic plague and those who spread it. The bedroom baseboards are thick with lint and cat hair. At the bottom of my vegetable drawer is a bag of slime that used to be either red peppers or sweet potatoes. Or a cucumber? I don't know. And I don't even like doing the laundry— which my husband does most of, since he's a massage therapist and has loads of sheets to wash anyway. I just like folding it.
But not all of it. I don't like matching my husband's endless and minutely varied black socks. Or trying to understand fitted sheets. What I like is folding my children's clothes. I smooth and sort, arrange and stack, and what I experience is being in love. I have felt this way since my son, Ben, and daughter, Birdy, were babies.
I have felt this way, actually, since before they were born, with that first thimbleful of laundry pulled warm from the dryer, all those teensy socks and postage-stamp washcloths like a promise of happiness. I folded them on my pregnant belly and sent my wish up to the heavens: Let there be joy.
"Look!" I said to my husband, holding up a kimono-tie T-shirt you could have mounted on a microscope slide. I clutched it to my almost-mom bosom, because in the absence of an actual baby, I loved all the precious little baby things.
Then there were actual babies, actual children, and the feeling only increased. Sure, the laundry was infrequently folded in those early days and years, given that we mostly lived out of the laundry basket the way a frequent flier lives out of a suitcase. But sometimes I would tip the basket onto my bed and fold up everything, each cottony garment perfectly representing our baby, our child.
The little giraffe-printed sleep sack! The shell-pink one-piece with the cheetah decal! The butterscotch-colored velour suit brought by a friend from Paris! As my children got older, the clothes represented not just the fact of a darling bundle in my arms, but the kids themselves—so perfectly, uniquely themselves—in their personalities and passions. The preschool years when our son favored the color "raspberry"; our daughter's long phase of bright striped dresses that segued into a longer (and continuing) phase of pants only; the Beatles shirt from a friend who shared Ben's Fab Four fandom; the white tee Birdy decorated with starbursts of Sharpie.
I folded these clean things and knew them so well—the clothes and children both. I folded the OshKosh overalls and the Swedish cotton pajamas and the souvenir Brooklyn shirt. I untangled undies and matched up winter-thick socks. I even admired the washcloths that I used to wipe their smudged little cheeks. Doting, I pressed my nose to piles of clothes the way I used to bury my face in my boyfriend's T-shirt when he wasn't there, half-crazy with love.
Folding is the origami of my devotion. I feel it even now, as I fold up an edgy Parks and Recreation shirt, or jeans with impossibly long legs, or the stacks of my son's gray-and-black everything, which include huge hoodies that could double as awnings—because the children are grown and growing still. They are giants, and their giant clothing covers the bed as if we're in a fairy tale about laundry that's been enchanted. Fee Fi Fo Fum.
What is it about children's growth—about parents' pleasure in it? It reflects nothing but their genetic coding. I should be no prouder of it than I am of my computer when it activates a screensaver. And yet, happiness always crashes over me like a wave—the luck of these children here with me, growing every day. Because by the time they stop growing? They'll be leaving us.
So maybe this is not a call to housework but a call to gratitude. And what I'm grateful for is not that the clothes are clean and folded. Or not just that—even though I am glad that for this moment at least, chaos is held at bay in our dusty, sheltering house. And not just for this silly cat, who has no clothes of his own but has tunneled into the pile to nap, and who will never grow up and move out. No. What I am grateful for above all is these kids, shedding clothes like they're molting, passing through here and now on their way to a future somewhere else—but here, now.
Want to read more from Catherine Newman? Check out her books Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy.