We were on vacation with our son and Bill’s father whom I’ve always called by his first name George. One morning George found on his dresser the socks I had washed and folded for him with his underwear. He came out of the bedroom grinning, unfolding a pair.
“Lela used to fold socks like this,” he said. “But I never learned how to do it. I just can’t get it right.”
He was pleased and was relishing this small gesture of holding a household together, treasuring a family. He and Lela had been married 65 years when she died. I wondered if he ever noticed this while he had her. I wondered if he ever told her thank you for the millions of socks she folded.
When Bill and I got married, Bill still lived at home. His mother changed his bed with air-dried sheets she used to carry, wet and heavy up from the basement where she did the washing – up and out to the clothesline where she carefully shook each sheet free of its wrinkles with a crisp snap, folded it in half, and pinned it with wooden clothespins to the line in the back yard where the sheets were dried by the Indiana prairie wind and the sun. She would fold them and all the other wash – underwear, dish towels, bath towels, pillowcases, and dozens of socks – and put them all clean and smelling of summer breeze and marigolds into drawers and linen closets. The dozens of pairs of underwear – boxer shorts and white tee shirts – and the pillowcases and cotton handkerchiefs she sprinkled, folded into themselves into round mounds that looked like bread dough rising, and placed them in a laundry basket to be ironed that night by the T.V. Yes, the underwear, pillowcases and linen handkerchiefs, white shirts, blue shirts, work shirts and blue jeans, housedresses, aprons, and feed sack dish towels were all ironed.
Gestures of love – touching the clothes, smoothing, patting, folding, patting some more – when sometimes she couldn’t pat the bodies they went on because they had changed from little boys to men before her eyes, or because they were too busy or too “grown-up” or too gone-all-the-time to be touched and enfolded or patted any more.
I couldn’t help thinking about all the nights this family of five had crawled into bed between fragrant sheets and burrowed their heads into sweet-smelling freshly ironed pillowcases, felt the comfort, inhaled the “summer” and caressed their pillows. Did Lela long to be caressed sometimes too, and patted? On cold nights did George sometimes burrow his nose into her soft neck smelling of Estée Lauder after her bath, and tell her how much he loved having his socks folded, his shorts ironed, his meals hot, his house clean, his needs met, and a warm body to hold? Or did he just trust that there are some things that don’t have to be said. Does he still think that now?
Maybe not, maybe now he knows how important it is to say it. So he says it to me. “Lela used to fold my socks like this. I’ve never been able to do it, but Lela did – just like this.”