Suburban Soliloquy

129. Laundry

This is the only existence that I know and there are aspects about it I don't like, such as the big one, mortality. Why do I and a few select friends and pets ever have to die? There are lesser upsets, like why must my brain be so restricted as to limit what I can comprehend of the universe? I probably shouldn't lose sleep over that one, but sometimes I do. There is also this disturbing arrangement of natural law that requires the redistribution of nutrition to be dependent on creatures eating one another. It is particularly disturbing when it involves sentient creatures. Why couldn't the transfer of nutrition be exclusively through the consumption of fruit? Existence is peppered with lots of inconveniences. Very low on the list of profound concerns is the need to do laundry, yet this banal task comes frustratingly often as an interruption to the enjoyment of existence.

I was spared doing my laundry while growing up due to the prevalent division of labor in the culture at that time. In the old hierarchy, the male offspring had the responsibility of mowing the lawn and taking down the trash. Meanwhile, washing the laundry was the exclusive province of the woman. That didn’t change for me until I was twenty years old.

When I was twenty years old, I left my parents' house on a green CB450 DOHC Super Sport Honda motorcycle, with all the clothes I could stuff into a backpack. In Boulder, Colorado, I sought shelter beneath my sister's roof. My sister, Bette, six years older than me, an outspoken feminist, harbored me until I could find a job and my own place to stay. It was the early 1970s, the time when Kate Millett's book Sexual Politics came out and had a place on my sister's shelf, the time when the first issue of Ms. Magazine appeared, and, when Burt Reynolds was displayed as Cosmopolitan's nude centerfold. Changing times. I made the terrible mistake of asking my sister if she would do my laundry.

Plainly I had blundered, but at the time the request was as natural as it was thoughtless. She shot me her deadliest stare and explained in a threatening voice that doing laundry did not require a college education, that there were no classes teaching the subject. True, she could have brought me to enlightenment by gentler means, but anger was my sister's style. Being left to my own devices, I was determined to make my sister sorry by doing it terribly wrong. The surprise was to discover there were instructions on the detergent box and it was frustrating that they were so simple. I couldn't consciously do it wrong without appearing a moron.

My sister made me aware. I was horrified upon reflection that my mother had been shackled to this mundane labor of doing my laundry for twenty years. I suppose she entered into it expecting it to be her lot. I believe my mother could have enjoyed a successful career as an interior decorator, but she didn’t have the self-confidence. She didn’t aspire to anything higher than housewife and only regretted her choice of latching on to my father, who was not a rising star. Meanwhile, after my brief stay with my sister, I have been doing my own laundry ever since. Indeed, even when I returned home, I wouldn't allow my mother to do my laundry.

So the prosaic labour of doing laundry became a feature of my independence, even when I was staying at my parents’ house. At least at home there was the marvellous convenience of washing machine and dryer. I didn't have to dress and put on shoes to do a laundry. Away from home, it was more tedious, having to drag the laundry to the nearest laundromat.

Laundry is simple. I’ve learned to weave the task of laundry into the time spent writing. I write until I reach a point where I'm stumped. It is an excellent moment to step away from my desk and contemplate what my next words should be. While doing that, I take the time to advance my laundry through its various stages to and from and through machines.

I used to do everything in one load. That was until I met Ms Keogh, my more significant other. She regarded my practice of mixing darks with lights, resulting in grey underwear, as deeply disturbing. Because of her, I now do separate loads, yet I'm still unclear about blue shirts, or white shirts with dark stripes, or khaki colored shirts. I’ve also bought some underwear already grey.

Actually, for several years, I've not done much laundry. When we were obliged to buy a new washing machine and dryer, Ms Keogh picked out a matching pair of Whirlpool Gold Ultimate Care II washer and dryer in elegant black. She would not let me touch the new machines, insisting they were her domain. It was also because she had retired from her career and wasn’t now working. She felt this responsibility fell to her. I gave in despite some dissatisfaction with having to depend on her. Sometimes stuff doesn’t get returned in a timely manner and she is inclined to lose pieces of my clothing.

On the other hand, doing laundry hasn't always been onerous for me. I do remember a day when living in Boston
well, actually Brookline, a city adjacent to Boston where I made weekly visits to a small laundromat a few blocks from my apartment. The place was narrow and crowded with machines. It was several steps down from the sidewalk and my visits during the dinner hour usually found it deserted. Those days of poverty and youth gave ample time for thoughts and reading. I was glad to escape my airless studio apartment, which was sparsely furnished. I had no television, not even a radio. At the laundromat, I sat atop the warm machines, the soothing hum and rumble a massage and barrier against distracting noise. I was happy just reading a book or napping. A vision returns to me now of watching feet walk by the small windows high in the wall and passing judgment on women’s ankles. Laundromats did seem like an excellent place to meet women, but I was never so fortunate.

There was one laundry day I remember as being remarkable. I was returning to my apartment with my laundry clean and folded, shoved into a pillowcase thrown against my back and it was snowing. The first falling snowflakes are always charming. Did I not have a beaming smile? I was Hotei.

The reality is, existence is seldom what we want it to be. Washing the laundry is just one of the thousand incidental tasks that must be regularly attended to if survival is to be comfortable. The Zen Buddhist teaches us to embrace such tasks and not waste a moment in bitterness. Some people have even found beauty in the task. Well, there are plenty of beautiful paintings of laundresses. A favorite image comes to me, one painted by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec. Not the recent La Blanchisseuse that went on the block at Christie's, but another that hangs at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Still, in my life, I would rather be the painter than the laundress, or in this case, writing about laundry rather than doing laundry.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"