It’s midnight, and I really need to find my favorite shirt. I fumble my way through all the potential places in my living quarters where my shirt could hide. The drawers full of once neatly-folded clothes? Nope. The pile of clothes thrown on top of my dresser after being worn once? Not there either. The mess of clean clothes on the couch that I hadn’t gotten to folding yet? Sadly no. The stack of seemingly unrelated clothes in my hanging clothes organizer I bought from IKEA? Unsurprisingly no. Oh, I almost forgot - the assortment of clothes that had been living in the dryer for a week now? Nice try, but no. Exasperated, I run my hands through my hair. There’s only one more place to look: the laundry hamper. I dig through the pile of dirty clothes in my laundry hamper, hoping and not hoping to find my favorite shirt. Hoping, because if it’s not in my laundry hamper, then I have no idea where it is and need to conduct another search in the same places just in case I missed it. Not hoping, because then I’ll have to 1) wear another shirt tomorrow or 2) sacrifice some much-needed sleep so I can do laundry right now, neither of which I’m keen to do. After excavating the dirty clothes from the hamper like a dog digging out a bone buried in the sand, I discover my favorite shirt at the bottom of the hamper; I forgot that I wore it to work last week for a presentation and had accidentally gotten tomato sauce on it at the post-presentation dinner.
This isn’t the first time I’ve started planning my outfit for the next day or was getting ready to shower and then realized that something‘s missing. Sometimes it’s underwear, sometimes it’s socks, and sometimes it’s a member of my Favorite Clothes Club. Whatever it is, I couldn’t find it in my closet, or it’s in my laundry hamper, and it’s too late to take it out of the hamper and wear it without smelling weird. Which basically means one thing: time to do laundry!
I wouldn’t say I love doing laundry, but I don’t dislike it either. Let’s just say that it’s my favorite household chore. You get to take breaks (while the washer or dryer is running) and when everything’s done, you get clean clothes! The feeling I get when I take my clothes out of the dryer and retrieve my favorite clothes is like that feeling as a kid when you reunite with your stuffed animal best friend after coming home from school.
But back to my search for my favorite shirt and my conclusion that I need to do laundry. One by one, I bring each item of clothing on my dresser to my nose for a sniff. If it passes the sniff test and I deem it acceptable to wear at least one more time, I keep it on the dresser. Otherwise, I put the piece of clothing in the appropriate hamper: lights and underwear in the white hamper, darks and socks in the blue hamper. Then, I transfer the clothes from the white hamper to the washer and pour the detergent. After turning the knob to the correct cycle and selecting the water temperature, I push the start button. Slosh slosh SWOOSH slosh slosh.
Growing up, my sister and I did our own laundry every Sunday, and we often helped our busy mom do her laundry too. Ever since we tainted a white shirt by accidentally washing it with a new pair of jeans, we separated the lights from the darks (this was the only form of segregation we condoned), making exceptions for underwear and socks. All underwear went with the lights, and all the socks went with the darks, no matter what color they were. We washed the lights and underwear before the darks and socks so the underwear wouldn’t get contaminated by the socks.
BUZZZZZZ! Hearing the washer buzz, I jump from my seat to go to the laundry room. Back at home, we didn’t have a dryer, so we hung all our clothes on rods that my dad hung outside or in the garage near the washer. No later than 10 minutes after the washer buzzed, we would go into the garage to save the wet clothes from becoming a smelly clothes stew. After taking an article of clothing out of the washer, we would shake it and smooth it out before hanging tops on normal hangers, bottoms on pant hangers, and underwear and socks on a foldable clip and dry hanger. Sometimes we would have to spend three minutes just shaking out the clip and dry hangers because all the clips had gotten tangled together. And if someone accidentally left a receipt or tissue in a pocket, there would be laughter, followed by a lecture on emptying your pockets before throwing things in the laundry hamper, followed by the perpetrator having to pick out all the tiny white slivers of paper or tissue from the clothes.
My sister and I developed a system in which we would hang all the pants first, then the shirts, and finally the underwear and socks. Then we took turns carrying the wet clothes and hanging them on the rods and then coming back to the washing machine. If it was sunny, we would hang the clothes outside, and if it was raining, we would hang them in the garage. By the end, we got a good arm and leg workout from squatting to retrieve the clothes from the washer, carrying the clothes from the washer to the rods, and lifting the clothes to hang on the rods. And as we retreated to our rooms, we prayed that our clothes would be safe from wind and bugs.
Now that I have a dryer, things are much easier. There are still some clothes that need to be hung to dry though. Take bras for instance. And my athletic jerseys. And all the other clothes that say “Hang Dry.” First, I hang all the clothes that can’t be put in the dryer before transferring the rest of the clothes in the washer to the dryer. Then I repeat the whole process with the batch of clothes in the blue hamper. Toss the clothes into the washer, pour detergent, select the correct settings, press the start button. Chug a chug a chug a chug a.
The clothes hung on the rods outside probably got at least 300% of the daily Vitamin D recommendation by the time they were dry. Before the sunset, my sister and I would carry the laundry basket downstairs. Each time, it was a matter of detaching the clothes from their hangers and dropping the clothes into the basket as fast as we could before we were engulfed by darkness and attacked by insects. Sometimes, we would see a lonely piece of clothing lying outside in the dirt a few feet away from the drying rods, and we would frantically snatch it away from the dirt, curse the wind, and pat the poor item of clothing down. If it was still dirty, we would throw it back in the hamper. And if we had time before the sunset, we would fold the clothes before placing them in the basket so we wouldn’t have to fold them later.
After all the clothes were safely in the basket, we would carry the basket back upstairs. One of us (usually the one most scared of the dark) led the way, reaching behind to hold the front of the basket while the other helmed the back and made sure the garage door was locked. We kept our hands steady to keep the basket balanced, pretending that we were transporting an important official in a litter, except the litter was plastic instead of wooden. Once we reached the top of the stairs and set the heavy basket down on the carpet, we would slide it down the hallway - stopping by our parents room, then my room, and then my sister’s room to deposit each person’s clothes carefully on their beds like we were mailwomen or Santa Claus’s elves delivering fragile presents. Sometimes, mail got delivered to the wrong address, and a few days later, there would be a shriek of laughter when one of us realized that we accidentally took our mom’s underwear. Since my sister and I had a lot of the same clothes, sometimes there would also be arguments over whose clothes were whose, or incidents of someone accidentally taking someone else’s shirt thinking it was theirs, even though they didn’t even put their own shirt in the laundry. But now that my sister got married and moved across the country, I’m living by myself and doing my own laundry.
BUZZZZZZ! Once again, I jump in my seat at the intrusive noise and rush to hang all the high-maintenance clothing before placing the rest of the newly washed clothes into the dryer. Then, I clean the lint, adjust the dryer settings, and press the start button. Finally, I’m free from having to worry about smelly clothes stew.
Since I’m doing my own laundry, I’ve gotten a little lazier about folding my clothes right after taking them out of the dryer. The folding stage typically happens in the following order: members of my Favorite Clothes Club, athletic jerseys, tops, bottoms, underwear, socks. As boring as it may sound, folding clothes is stress-relieving and a wonderful way to recount what happened in the past week or so. I already know that the last time I wore my favorite shirt was for good luck when I gave a presentation at work, but the other articles of clothing also have stories and memories weaved into them. Here are some of the memories from the past week, as told by the newly washed clothes: a PJ T-shirt from a popcorn-filled movie night; a pair of underwear that carried blood stains from when my period leaked; a jersey that used to be covered in grass stains, providing evidence that I tried my best as a goalkeeper at last week’s soccer tournament; and a pink lace bra that makes me blush when I remember last week’s date night. When I was little, the recounting would happen while hanging the clothes and removing them from the hangers, since each piece of clothing got at least 30 seconds of one-on-one time.
BUZZZZZZ! Now that’s the buzz I want to hear! I open the dryer and look through the batch of warm, clean clothes for my favorite shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Sleepy and finally at peace, I fold just the clothes I need for tomorrow and set them neatly on the top of my dresser before snuggling into my blanket. 10 hours later, I’m in my favorite shirt and pair of blue jeans, ringing the doorbell to Ms. Red’s house. I wait outside for about 30 seconds before an old lady cracks open the door. She smiles, a faint dimple appearing on her left cheek. “My laundry lady is here!” she says excitedly. I smile and walk into her house.
A few weeks after Ms. Red was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been going to her house every week to help her do laundry. She’s forgotten how to use the washer and started doing her laundry by hand, but that was causing arthritis in her hands. Since she has trouble operating machines, I’m the one who places the clothes in the washing machine, adds detergent, turns the knob to the correct cycle, selects the water temperature, and then pushes the start button. While her clothes are twirling and dancing in the washer, I sit with Ms. Red and tell her the adventures I encountered in the past week: my work presentation, my fancy date night (minus the night shenanigans), my soccer tournament... Then when the washer buzzes, I move everything to the dryer. For the next hour, Ms. Red and I organize and clean her house. Finally, the dryer stops, and I bring all the clothes to her room. Then together, we fold. For Ms. Red, folding clothes is relaxing and makes her feel productive. She doesn’t say much these days, but when we simultaneously pick up the same item of clothing to fold, her eyes twinkle and she yanks it out of my hands so she can fold it. Every now and then after I finish folding an item of clothing, I’ll look over to check her progress and see her slowly but surely folding in her own special way. An expert at packing clothes into suitcases that seem too small to fit everything, my mom often taught me various methods of folding clothes that I still use to this day. Now, every week, Ms. Red shows me different folding techniques that she claims to have invented. Last week, she “folded” a pair of socks by rolling one sock and putting it in the other sock. Today, she’s folding pants by first rolling up the legs and then folding along the inseam. Sometimes we race to see who can fold the most clothes, and other times we focus on organizing the folded clothes by color or type.
Spending four hours each week doing Ms. Red’s laundry has made me contemplate how much the ordinary task of doing laundry entails. Everyone needs to do laundry, but not everyone can do it. No matter their size, shape, color, or age, different items of clothing all go through some part of the laundry process. Doing laundry can happen early in the morning or late at night. Wet clothes can be tossed into the dryer or hung outside to dry. Laundry can be done by hand or by a machine. A successful laundry session involves separating light from dark clothing to prevent unwanted color transfer, removing wet clothes from the washer promptly to prevent an onslaught of mildew smell, and depending on preference, having a system for folding clothes. But why do people really do laundry? Sure, dirty and smelly clothes are unsanitary and unpleasant, but what causes someone to actively take on this mundane task? Maybe it’s their love for a member of their Favorite Clothes Club. Or maybe it’s a different kind of love.
When my sister and I were in high school, sometimes we were too busy to do our own laundry, and our parents would quietly do our laundry for us. And when we were in college and returned home for the holidays, we would find that our parents had already washed our bedsheets for us. Doing laundry was one of the many ways our parents showed us their love.
Even though Ms. Red keeps calling me her laundry lady and insists that I call her "Ms. Red", I’m just happy that I get to do laundry with her. I hope Ms. Red knows that whenever I visit her and help her do laundry, I’m really saying, “I love you too, Mom.”