Friday, August 29, 2014

Clouds of cotton

I was folding sheets the other day, and it was fluffing up memories in my mind.

See what I did there?

Namely, as I was single-handedly (well, double-handedly, but single-bodiedly) folding a sheet, I remembered when I used to fold sheets with my brothers as children, and how it was a team effort, because we were wee.

I think my mom told me once during my adult years – or maybe I read it in Woman’s Day at Grandma’s – that she would let us fold things like linens, because who cares if the washcloths are uneven in the closet? It was less important that sheets and blankets be wrinkle free than her silk 80s blouses, especially with four kids to love on at home and a busy Human Resources office to manage by day.

So us kiddoes received sheets to fold, as a way of earning our adorable blonde keep, and probably to keep Mom and Dad from going over the edge with all their parental duties.

We often received several plastic baskets of white socks and undies, and would be informed that we were at a “Folding Party” (joy!), and we would proceed to grumble, sometimes laugh, and wait for our eyes to become bloodshot as we grabbed for yet another sock, hoping it would match the seemingly identical one already in our other hand.

I think we even used bright permanent markers at one point to put green, orange, purple marks on the toes of the socks to make this matching task easier, but I don’t recall it actually speeding up the process.

It seemed like Folding Parties occurred at least once a week, and with the party favors being…socks (albeit clean ones, can’t complain too much), well let’s just say these parties never lived up to the “Party” in their name.

So socks sucked, but sheets on the other hand were actually pretty great.

Mom used to grab sheets straight from the buzzing dryer and go in search of her children, watching TV, playing video games, doing homework throughout the house. Once found, she would dump the warm sheets on each of us, and it was like living in a happy cloud of cotton and something without an exact name, really, but akin to world peace and no school and giant ice cream sundaes.

Something like that. The stuff of childhood, and the stuff we never stopped wishing for after we outgrew our twin-sized bedding.

The heat from the sheet cloud evaporated quickly, within a minute, even, and when I finally shrugged out of the Little Mermaid or koala or Sesame Street print fabric, my skin was chilly, giving me a shiver. But it was totally worth it while it lasted. Every time.

My parents also tasked us with the feat of folding our bedding, which was risky given our varying heights, which were for a long time well under five feet apiece. But we were somehow able to fold several sets of sheets, so we charged on and boldly assisted with this household chore.

I loved folding pillowcases, because they fit more easily in my tiny hands, and that tiny bit of Dad's engineering blood in me made my technique pretty accurate. But I also loved folding the big sheets, with the big brothers.

It was (at least) a two-person job (sometimes a third kid would pinch the middle section of a sheet to keep things tidy between folds), requiring each kid on the two-person team to grab two corners each. This was enough to spread my arms to their full wingspan, clutching a wrinkled corner in each fist, making sure not to let loose the silky fabric and delay the process.

With the parachute of cartooned cotton stretched between us, we would walk toward each other, carefully and clumsily mashing our sheet corners between our palms, pressing tight so as not to drop them.

Somehow we would smooth out the points, and one kid would steadily hold the four-turned-to-two pointed corners, now thicker than before, while the other kid would make sure it was safe to let go, then reach to the floor to grab the folded end of the sheet. Then this bro or sis would back away from the sibling, stretching out the sheet like a runner being unrolled at a wedding.

Then we would pinch our own corners together on our own ends of the parachute, my left hand to my right, brother's left hand to his right.

Then we would turn the sheet to make it lie horizontally suspended again, making eye contact for a moment first to make sure we were in sync to turn the sheet in the same direction. Sometimes we got it right, others we ended up with a twist in the smooth folds of our parachute. More eye contact would correct the twist.
We now had a very narrow, long sheet of several folded layers between us. We would walk toward each other again to mesh our corners once again. As the sheet got more tightly packed together with itself, we moved faster, handling the giant flag of fabric more easily in our kid-sized hands with each move, our confidence evident in our swiftness.


As I was folding my own sheets the other day, I was thinking about how massive that sheet used to be between me and my fellow folders. So big that it took all of our concentration not to let it slip from our hands. One wrong, accidental twist and we would get frustrated, one nagging the other that now the process had to begin again. Other times we were more forgiving, willing to slow down to correct the error.

I could be misremembering, but I loved the task of folding sheets. I felt grown up, powerful and brave, even, being trusted with the task of handling something so big. Not just washcloths and pillowcases, but BIG sheets. Something ten times my size.

It took me plenty of years as a twenty-something to realize it, but I love having a role, and as our family gets bigger with sisters-in-law and a niece and nephews, having a role feels almost imperative to me, to prevent my disappearance in the crowd.

Folding sheets was an early role for me, along with doing dishes and later shoveling snow (the brothers will argue that I didn’t do my fair share of shoveling, but I have my explanations, friends, if you'd ever like to hear my side of the story). Now I've come into other roles -- sending my niece stickers in the mail, making inappropriate jokes at family gatherings, cross stitching things for babies' nurseries. Writing.

The sheet between me and my brothers feels sometimes wide again, these days. My closest sibling, geographically, is 1,000 miles from me. I haven’t seen him in almost two years, nor have I met his newborn son. 

But I once called this same brother when I, at 21 years old, for the first time in my life, hated my life. I cried on the phone and he prayed for me across the electrical wire. I sat on the floor of the kitchen, sort of listening, sort of relaxing as best as I could into the sound of his voice.

Mom was in the next room, and had tried her best to help, but knew there were some things only a sibling can fix with another sibling. Sometimes she sends one of us in to coax the other to do something, or to talk them out of a bad mood, or whatever. If memory serves, it may have been her who dialed him that night eight years ago, looking for him to help her daughter. And he helped.

This brother has since married, gained another degree, moved a time or three. I have learned to kiss boys (late bloomer), gained another degree, quit a degree program, and moved a time or eight. This brother is not my current, go-to mentor (and we’ve taken my love life off the table of conversations, because we just do not see eye to eye on it, so why waste time?), but I still love him. And I miss him. Sometimes in a crippling way, other times – as I ventured yesterday with my therapist – in a non-overtaking way.

And all of it makes me think of the sheets.

There is giant parachute space between me and my brothers right now. And most of the time, the sheet remains extended rather than folded. Skype calls and witty Facebook comments make their way across it, but actual airfare is rarely purchased to make the corners touch.

And the expanse feels wide – because it is – but it was wide when we were kids, too, at times. We didn’t develop the magic sibling eye contact required to keep the sheet from twisting overnight. It took several folding party sessions to get there.

And we used to bicker at each other when someone dropped a corner, because we were young and the sheet folding was new and difficult and it was frustrating to have to start again at something we hadn't yet mastered.

But we would always start again. And now we’ve matured, slower to snap when someone drops a corner (sometimes).

More people are holding the corners, and edges of the sheet, now – wives, babes. New tabby cats.

Sheets are flung on air mattresses, futons, on the floors of babies’ rooms or living rooms, when we visit at Christmas, or baptisms, or graduations.

Corners touch for a moment, but when we go back to our home corners after each visit -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas -- the sheet doesn’t remain folded. It's an extended parachute, hovering over "fly-over" country once again.

Touch, unfold. Touch, unfold.

I guess what I’m realizing, or experiencing, at this exact moment in history (because I wouldn’t be surprised if it changes), is that I’m doing OK – much better than I have done, or been – with the not staying folded thing. I don’t know if it’s because I’m enjoying my own life right now, or something else, or a combination of several things. It's taken many therapy sessions and conversations with friends, and tears, and prayers from friends to get here, but it feels like, for but a moment, I'm here. Not thinking about some vague "there," of what could or should be.  

I would like more touches of the corners, for the sheet to stay folded longer. But if Skype and three days at Christmas are what I get, I’ll take it over the other option, which is to remain always unfolded, or with one corner dropped and the other corners being unforgiving and not willing to rework the system to make the lines clean again.

We folded then. We dropped corners. We twisted, or we got the eye contact just right. We bickered. We unfluffed our valiant folding work to make our beds, then stripped them when Mom hollered upstairs for us to bring her laundry.

She washed, she dried, she dumped the clouds on us once again, the clouds of world peace and no school and endless ice cream.

And we emerged, shivered a bit, and then we folded. And we figured out a groove.

And we always had those moments before the folding parties, in the clouds. Somehow things were most perfect when crumpled and heaped, instead of neatly folded and stacked. When we weren't thinking about the logistics of folding, but were just existing -- happy, and warm.

I plan to dump sheets on my own kids, should I have them, and I hope they find their groove with each other, at their folding parties, in their twenties, and beyond.


  1. Crying here in Kansas.
    You have composed another beautiful love letter. I wish I were with you to drop a warm sheet or basket of socks on you.

    1. you're gonna make me cry in california!! xo