I have a picture in my head of Mom. She’s wearing soft denim shorts to just above her knees. Her hair is in curlers, a red bandana tied around the curlers, a cigarette on her lip. Next to her, on the floor, is a flat metal ashtray, the kind that folds like tin when you bend it. We are both sitting on a rug in front of the TV. She’s watching Another World. Mom likes the plain-looking older woman, Ada, but not Rachel, Ada’s daughter. I’m not allowed to talk while the action is taking place; fortunately, commercials come on every few minutes.
Mom watches Another World every day at this hour, shortly before our nap and right after our lunch. She only superficially follows As the World Turns and General Hospital. General Hospital is the hottest thing going on in soap opera drama, but Mom has never been one to follow trends. It is Ada and Rachel she is faithful to.
This particular day Mom has a basket of clothing by her side, and like one of those chowders you buy nowadays that comes in a bowl made of bread, Mom’s basket of clothing never seems to get all the way down to the bottom. She folds, smokes, watches TV. Smokes, watches TV, folds again.
I have had this memory before, and in it Mom is sometimes watching something other than Another World. One time it is John F. Kennedy’s assassination or funeral, I’m not sure which, although I do know I would have been too young to remember either. Yet, the details of that memory are especially acute: the orange cotton jumper Mom is folding, the one she sewed herself for Janet. The white hard plastic of the laundry basket. The cold tiles on the floor where my hand rests. What it is about that spot? Did we sit there often?
I am always young in my memory of that place, as is Mom. We are both earnest, both willing to be the best we can be at our respective roles. Mom is still willing to take her laundry basket with her to wherever she goes to sit; she still folds the clothes into piles while smoking her cigarettes and watching her soap. She is still kind to me, making me lunch, trying to show me the ways of moms.
Later on, in a newer house, she will keep all the clothes in a basket underneath the ironing board perpetually set up, but rarely used, in the master bedroom. The basket will get so full of clean clothes that a second one will be employed. All my clothes and those of my sister and brother will be stuffed into those two baskets, shirts on top of socks, pants on top of shirts, occasionally a set of clean sheets or a bedspread thrown on top of the entire heap. By the time any of us pulls out an item to wear, it will be so wrinkled from the weight of every other item that no amount of ironing, not even with steam nor the spray of a water bottle, will take out the indentations that soon become the hallmark of our fashion.
By then I will be sassy and sarcastic towards Mom. I will snarl at her, call her names, become an unruly teenager. I will throw a bottle of nail polish at her when she makes a snide comment about my boyfriend. But in that one long-ago memory, the one where Mom and I sit on the floor together, I watch her with big eyes. I notice how well she maneuvers her many devices — the television, the clothes, her cigarettes, the ashtray. I love everything about her, especially her smell, which I now realize is exactly the scent of clean laundry.
I wonder what it is about folding clothes that repeats itself, like a little ballerina doing pirouettes in my mind. Why not washing dishes or dusting, or scrubbing floors on her hands and knees? Mom wasn’t the kind of housewife who wore an apron. She didn’t whistle while she worked, nor did she sing. Mom didn’t buy into brand names — Tide and Palmolive (“you’re soaking in it!”). She called all powder disinfectant cleaners “Ajax,” even when she bought Comet. (Comet…it makes you vomit…so buy Comet, and vomit, too-dayyy…)
When I think of Mom and cleaning, I think of conflict. I think of anger and resentment. She hated to clean. She was so impatient she wouldn’t even allow us to clean. “I’ll make your beds, just get out of my hair,” she told us. Mom was a nervous wreck (her words) when I was growing up. She had too many kids, and eventually things started to happen. Teen pregnancy, drugs, smoking, drinking.
She wasn’t a controlling woman; she only cared that things were ”clean enough.” But cleaning was just one more chore she never really wanted to sign up for. Mom was happiest when she was sitting over coffee with Tomasita from across the street or playing poker with her friends or watching her soap opera.
Maybe that’s why this particular memory of folding clothes while watching TV comes to me again and again. And this, always this: She asks me to go get her a glass of water. I jump up and run to the kitchen. There on the counter is an open package of windmill cookies with almond slivers. I take a piece of a broken cookie, put it my mouth and let it melt while I fill up her glass. It is quiet in the house for once, just the sound of breathy voices coming from the television, and that stark sensation that daytime TV produces. While the the rest of the world is out doing what they do and Mom is here with me, doing what it is we do.
-Based on a ten-minute practice from Topic Post, Cleanliness.