Recalling Homely, Humbling Moments

I’m in the laundromat, 1971, a young mother of two boys under three.

The laundromat sits next to the Super Duper Market on Fluvanna Avenue. I open the huge dryer to a whoosh of warm air and pull out the sheets to fold.

They smell good. Sunlight streams through the windows. I turn, and there is Margaret Pickard, mother of my dear friend John. She says, “Sandy, let me help you.” Together we fold them: carefully corner to corner, fold, fold, lengthwise, join and meet, fold together, press down and smooth. It’s a dance women do, this careful folding, this tending to the tasks of daily life. Mrs. Pickard’s eyes were keen and kind. I heard her unspoken sentiment.

1979, I’m living in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s devilish hot, probably 100, and I’m reaching up to clip a sheet to the line in my back yard. I’m so proud of this little brick house that we own on the corner of Ivy Hill Court.

The boys now 9 and 10 are off riding their bikes. Sometimes they’re gone for hours. It’s another age, full of birdsong and laughter and noodle salad. I’m standing amidst the lines of waving laundry, the sun hot on my back, and I think, this is the happiest moment of my life. The breeze blows through the sheets.

There’s a grace doing these needful tasks for those we most love.

And I don’t use the word grace lightly. It’s a force of healing, strength, courage.

It washes over us, a sweet breeze; it warms us like sunlight. We may not recognize these moments as instances of grace, but we remember them all our lives.

These tasks are sacred things; the care of doing them with love and awareness of the moment creates a sacred space. My mother had that gift. I see her busily at work in her kitchen, her fingers, which loved piano keys, deftly slicing vegetables, her attention preparing a meal over the stove, her almost worshipful pose on her knees next to her garden of yellow and orange marigolds, plucking, watering, tending. I see my Aunt Ingrid ironing, utterly lost in the task, smoothing each wrinkle out of fabric and in so doing, creating perfectly ironed clothes for her daughter and husband. I see my grandmother Johnson, that curious slight smile on her face, bent over a pot of coffee, carefully measuring; I see my grandmother Forsberg, face full of joy when she turns her head to me, washing each plate, handling it with care.

My father said our best memories are stuck there due to the quality of light. I think there’s something to that. Perhaps that quality of light has something to do with the grace in the moment.

When I was a professor at the College of Central Florida, I had many fine colleagues whose work ethic and humor and kindness sustained me on a daily basis. One of them was Judy Haisten, professor of Spanish. One day we were talking about housekeeping, the chores we would complete that weekend. She looked at me intently. “I don’t like to call it housework,” she said. “I call it beautifying. I call it beautifying my life.” I liked that phrase.

It’s a kind of prayer, isn’t it? There’s a holiness to keeping house with loving attention. The job of housewifery if you call it that is not a term big enough to include the wonder of that position. In his poem “Those Winter Sundays,” the poet Robert Hayden’s closing couplet mourns, “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” And yes, being up at midnight to finish something for one’s child or rising before dawn to get lunches ready, breakfast ready, clothes ready for the children or the grandchildren– are austere and lonely duties– but they are as well duties full of grace that fill up our lives quietly without fanfare. When we are 70 and look back over the landscape of our lives, it is those homely, humble moments we will best recall. They are shining memories, stop times. They beautify our lives.