catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 8 :: 2008.04.18 — 2008.05.02


The sacrament of laundry

Holy is the familiar room
The quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
Carrie Newcomer, “Holy As a Day is Spent”

As a means of distributing God's grace, laundry is right up there with baptism and the Lord's Supper. Often, though, we miss it.

It's Friday night, and I am climbing a mountain of laundry. The kids are in bed, my husband is at dinner with a potential new hire and I finally have a mental break from the household chatter. At last, time to think with no interruptions! I sit on the floor and start folding, enjoying the silence.

I am reminded of seeing my mom fold laundry when I was growing up. There was always plenty of laundry in our seven-member family, and she often sat on the living room couch with a couple of baskets of clean laundry at her feet. She’d slowly fill the couch with stacks of folded clothes, one stack for each person. There were towers of “tightie-whities,” two stacks of flowered underwear for me and my sister, and a stack of my dad’s flimsy boxers. While silently folding, she’d watch television.

My mom didn’t engage in conversation with us kids much. She didn’t call out cheerily as she folded, “Hey Sweetie, how was school?” or “There are some cookies on the counter for you,” or “Come, help me fold and I’ll tell you about this great old movie.” Instead, she sat in her own world, folding and watching. No comments, no smiles, no laughter.

In fact, my mom often seemed overworked and tired. She had many chores, which she mostly did by herself—vacuuming, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, cooking and, of course, the laundry. She sorted, washed, folded and put away the laundry by herself. For some reason, she never delegated these chores to the kids. We each had our assigned chores, and typically, we, too, did them by ourselves—with the exception of bed making. I was responsible for helping my mom make three of the six beds every Saturday after she washed all the sheets. (My sister helped her make the other three beds.) This job took about fifteen minutes, and we frequently worked in complete silence. We were in the same room alone together, working on the same job, and still no comments, questions or conversation. Sometimes I’d say something and my mom would respond with a short answer, but typically with no additional conversation, no smile, no encouragement to continue.

When I was in high school, my mom was hospitalized unexpectedly for three weeks with a heart condition. I was frightened by the seriousness of her condition, yet to my shame I found I wasn’t as concerned about the loss of her relationship as I was about the loss of her caretaking:  Who will do the laundry and cooking? As it turned out, friends brought us meals, and my siblings and I helped around the house. But when my mom fully recovered, she resumed all of her solitary chores.

My aunts tell me my mom played the piano beautifully when she was growing up. It’s true my mom always had thin hands with long, piano-player fingers, even though she was overweight. And, during my entire childhood, we always had a piano in our home even though neither my dad nor the kids played. But I never once heard my mom play the piano. Was she too busy with chores to play? Was she unhappy living in Tucson, far from her family in Milwaukee?   

As a teen, I thought Why doesn’t Mom ask me to help her fold?  I could share her burden and help her life not be so sad and tiring. We could talk and I could help save her. 

In most of the world today, laundry is a much more harsh, time-consuming task. And yet it can still be a means of grace-giving. In Slavenka Drakulić’s book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, she describes growing up in Yugoslavia with her mother and grandmother. Laundry was her grandmother’s weekly chore:

She was our servant—and our washing machine. Every Saturday she would perform a laundry washing ritual, a very long and elaborate procedure. On Friday night she would soak everything in the big metal washing tub. On Saturday morning, she would first scrub it, bent over the rim, using a wooden washboard. Then she would put it on the stove and boil it for a while…. After the laundry had been rinsed three times and whitened, she would starch it.

Finally, on Sunday evening, Drakulić’s grandmother ironed everything.  Although doomed to this dreadful chore, she spent the day teaching her granddaughter, and she saved her own daughter from the raw physical effects of the work. “I remember my grandmother’s hands,” Drakulić writes, “swollen and cracked, with little sores from washing … from constantly dipping them in hot and cold water…. Because of Grandma, my mother escaped her destiny.”

I, too, wanted to save my mom from the effects of laundry—not the physical effects but the emotional effects of isolation and boredom. Looking back, I feel like she wasted an opportunity—many opportunities—to build a relationship with me and to receive my help around the house.

I look down at my pile of laundry. I’m almost done. Silently, I’ve sat here doing my chore by myself. I, too, have a daughter, as well as three sons. I realize I’ve never asked any of them to fold with me. Instead, I choose to work alone in order to reflect, think, process and plan without interruptions. Or I assign a child to do this task. Alone. This in turn frees me to do other tasks—on my own. I have never thought of sharing laundry as a way to receive God’s grace from my children.

Suddenly, I understand my mom a little better. She, too, needed the silence, the break from all our voices and our needs and our selfishness. She was doing herself a favor. In my familiar room, I partake in the sacrament of laundry and am connected to my mother, now gone sixteen years, telling her I identify with her, and I forgive her. In turn, I receive God’s grace as I release my mom from years of judgment.

Later, as I crawl into bed, I’m reminded of the crisp sheets of my childhood, smelling of the wind and the desert. To me this was always the smell of heaven. Thanks, Mom.

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