One of the earliest memories that I have is of standing in the basement of my childhood home watching my mother sorting a massive pile of laundry into smaller piles of laundry, talking to me as she sorted about how many towels could go into the load, how many pairs of jeans, and why it was important to sort them out according to color and type. These mathematical equations baffled me. It always looked like there was more room in the washer than she was utilizing. Surely six pairs of full-sized men’s jeans would fit just as well as four? Wouldn’t that get her a step closer to her goal of banishing the piles in the basement? I remember sitting on the living room couch, watching her fold clothes, helping her match pairs of socks, and learning how to button Dad’s work shirts so they would hang nicely in the closet and not need ironed before he put them on. The shelf in our basement held an endless supply of fabric softener sheets, bleach, powdered detergent, liquid detergent, spray starch, and a thousand other potions and concoctions designed for the comforting and magical science of laundry. But most of all, I remember my mother’s constant battle of the baskets.
There were baskets in the living room, where occasionally they served as battle helmets, baby doll beds, or Barbie jail. There were baskets in the basement, tossed with a bounce down the long flight to crash in front of the washer. There were bathroom baskets, precariously balanced on top of the laundry hamper. There were baskets in the bedrooms, deposited there in hopes that the bedroom occupants would fill them with the clothes, sheets, blankets and towels that masked the hardwood floors. When the laundry basket showed up in the bedroom, it meant mom was serious. She was taking off the gloves and going after this laundry monster bare knuckles, and we were toadies in the fight. Later, maybe the same day, maybe in a week, another basket might arrive on the bed, filled with washed, dried, fluffed, folded piles of Downy-fresh laundry. And, as mom would deposit the baskets, her heart lighter, her burdened mind finally eased, we three children would cheerfully set to the task of neatly placing our clothes in the appropriate sock drawers, closets, and shelves. Or, more accurately, we children would dump the contents at the foot of the beds and then go back to whatever battle or demolition project we had been undertaking before Mom announced the arrival of clean laundry. At bedtime, when the piles obstructed our sleep, down to the floor they would go, ready to start the cycle of rumpling, sitting unnoticed, collection, laundering and delivery all over again.
For a while, my mother used her laundry baskets and the shreds of dryer sheets as a sort of tally system to mark her progress. She would weave each dryer sheet between the squares of the baskets. White and wilted like frayed surrender flags, she marked each load. When all of the squares were filled, she would methodically unwrap her basket and start the count again, tallying days of spin cycles and extra rinses that still march on today.
Flash forward thirty years, and here I am, surrounded by laundry baskets once again. As I type this post from the comforts of my bed, covered in clean sheets, I can say confidently that there is not a single room in my house, including my garage and my minivan that does not currently contain at least one active-duty laundry basket. Perched atop hampers, holding the overflow, slid under a bed holding plastic robots, on top of the kitchen table filled with the week’s recycling, and forgotten in the back of the minivan, overflowing with coats, mittens, jackets, discarded as the spring air made them unnecessary for travel the baskets hold both evidence of work yet to be done as well as evidence of labors of laundry attempted. .
It is impossible to walk more than five feet in our tiny house without stepping in a basket or tripping over one. But somehow, there is never an empty one when it is needed. In my daily efforts to contain and conquer the mountains of laundry, I use them as tools to sort, to remove, to mark those items that need to be permanently or seasonally removed from the cycle of laundry. But if that cycle doesn’t make it past the sorting and storing in the basket phase, there is always need of another and another and another basket. When the baskets become obstructions, the kids and the pets put them to use. It isn’t uncommon to find one holding a sleeping cat or a television watching kid with their limbs curled up in Snuggle-fresh comfort inside one of our baskets. My youngest has almost outgrown his ability to tuck himself neatly inside a basket for a “swing ride.” My husband or I will hold the sides of the basket and swing our arms back and forth, back muscles ripping, heart muscles straining, the flimsy bars of the basket bulging with each sway of the swing, each kick of giggling, happy feet.
The baskets are as much a part of the landscape of our house as the dogs or the couch. They appear in the backgrounds of most of our indoor family photos. Some of our best conversations, most gut wrenching arguments, rafter shaking laughter has occurred with a laundry basket between us. The familiar rhythm of collecting the day’s loads, the gentle thump of socks or sneakers in a dryer, the soft, pillowy piles that dot our rooms after the loads are complete mark more than our position in the laundry cycle. They have punctuated long talks about our hopes and dreams, long arguments about boundaries, and muffled peals of laughter on family movie nights. When we moved into our house, as we have added items and parted with things throughout our marriage, as we welcomed babies and pets, we didn’t make a bold decision to live amongst the loads. They seem to sprout up out of the very carpet. They certainly sprout up out of our good intentions.
Tonight, when I tuck in my children, I will shove one laundry basket under Kid 1’s bed. Kid 2 will get one moved from his bed to the rocking chair in the corner. I will have to step over two between my bedroom door and my side of the bed. Maybe there will come a day when the laundry in our home can be reduced to a weekly task rather than a lifestyle. Maybe there will come a day when our couch is dotted with throw pillows rather than baskets of socks and action figures. It makes me sad to think of what that day will be like, because when the baskets go, so will a lot of laughter, a lot of comfort, and a lot of downy-fresh familiarity.