Monday, March 28, 2011


He sheared the muddy wool in long thick strips, fallen onto the floor of their small thatched shed, the musky earthy glandular smell of sheep filling his nostrils. She gathered the wool in her wicker basket, swung onto her hip, and walked out to the sunshine; crouched onto a small wooden stool, set the basket beside her, and drew the oily wool through two wooden paddles embedded with metal tines, carding it into cooperative units, cleaned of burrs and mud and thistle leaves. She cards, and washes and dyes and spins; knits and weaves and stitches. Stretches the newly knitted, newly washed stockings onto wooden forms to dry in the radiant warmth of the kitchen fire. I see them only in my dreams, my great-great-greats, working the land and their animals, pushing their way through their earthly existence. I only imagine how they do it, composing the scenario from casual scenes found in PBS documentaries and from one particular book purchased in that musty bookstore in Hay on Wye, England; The Downlander Shepherd. No department stores for them. No racks of shoes or drawers of socks, all neatly stitched and seamless. Just an early spring lamb fed from the land, grown till its back and belly grew thick with wool, harvested and spun and knitted and worn under hand cobbled leather boots with button latches.

Yesterday I drove to Kohls, walked back to the Customer Service desk and returned the pair of boots I had bought for Sarah at Christmas, which she decided not to keep. Even though it’s been three months they happily traded the boots for in-store credit, electronically registered on a small plastic card. I traded the card for six pair of socks, three tightly woven running socks with special wicking to pull the sweat away from the soles of the feet - and three pair of argyles, all purchased for David's birthday this coming week. The socks were uniform in size, nicely arranged on thin colored cardboard, a chunk of thin black lines nested under the price on the upper right hand corner. The sign in the Men's department said buy one get one 50% off. The extent of personal labor in obtaining socks for David begins with turning the key in my Honda van and ends with pulling the zipper on my pocketbook. We hardly break a sweat.

For those of us who live in places with seasons, socks are a common denominator. The homeless fellow under the viaduct on 4th South wears them just like the Governor in the mansion on South Temple Street. They may not smell the same, but they both wear them.

When the kids were little and I was busy being PTA president and writing songs and recording albums, we had a laundry room between the kitchen and the garage. There was just a thin path in front of the washer and dryer. The rest of the floor was covered with a bulging mound of laundry. I am not proud of this. Every once in a while, when the mountain began to rumble like a volcano about to burst, I gathered that laundry into big black garbage bags and loaded the van, adding a stack of empty laundry baskets, a box of Tide, a gallon of Clorox and a jug of Downy fabric softener; drove up Main Street through Kaysville past Gentile Street in Layton, to Faye's Laundr-o Mat. I sorted the bags into washing machines, their tops lifted like the beaks of hungry baby birds. Dark's, whites, pastels, reds, sheets and towels,...they each had their own machine. Each fiber, each color, sorted into the bellies of those extra large commercial machines. I left the knits and hand washables at home for another day.

I learned to pace myself, starting the white's on hot while I prepared the colors, adding the Clorox after I pushed my strip of quarters into the batch of towels. The first batch was ready for fabric softener as I sorted the last batch. I worked my way back and forth along the row of washing machines like a suburban Kansas housewife on a trip to Las Vegas, drumming a row of slot machines, stuffing them with quarters and pushing and pulling handles.

Out of the washers, my arms embraced cool wet fibers stinging my nostrils with a waft of bleach or the scent of springtime “for clothes you love to live in!” I loaded the wet clothing into a large wire basket on wheels, my hand leading it along by the rod that rose from the base and bent to a rack for hangers at the top. Rolled the squeaky wheels over to the large bank of dryers, their round glass faces glowing in the reflected sunlight of a Saturday afternoon. It took me most of the day to complete my task. Various people came and went, their small batches washed, dried and folded in the wink of an eye. This was no ordinary laundry day; it was the ultimate test of a woman’s ability to multi task and achieve an end. The closest I come to it on a regular basis is cooking dinner on Sunday evening for a couple dozen people.

Finally…finally…I am finished. Those little demons of guilt get pushed aside when I am done. I feel rather satisfied as I load my piles of crisply folded clothing into laundry baskets, ready for the trip back home. Ah, those beautiful stacks of clean fragrant clothing, anxious to fill my children’s drawers. I swear to myself as I roll basket after basket out to the car that I am going to get a handle on this aspect of my life and have this taken care of on a regular basis, because it feels just dandy to be organized. But the thrill of it never lasts for me and I cannot sustain the desire no matter how often I yell at myself or shake my figurative finger and whisper, “See, doesn’t that feel better? Told you so.” The sense of satisfaction over tidy things and places never matches the thrill of other things for me: a new song, a deep and spontaneous conversation; a nicely rendered meal; a well placed afternoon nap from which you awake at the well resolved conclusion of a dream, a piece of life preserved in word. I wish a clean tidy laundry room made me feel so good for so long. Alas.

When I am finished with my laundry day I load one last basket into the back to the van. The leftovers. A deep plastic rectangular weave filled with miscellany: a pair of shorts little Annie’s outgrown; a tee shirt with the hem coming unstitched; the belt to Johnny’s ball pants. On top of the basket of miscellaneous clothes I plunk a Smiths grocery bag stuffed with un-matched socks. I harbor hope of finding their mates, even though I know they were likely sucked into the big vat under the laundry mat floor where the sock monster hunkers; his belly groaning and gurgling every morning; his big green arm rising up from underneath the washing machines and dryers, the crook of his fingernail snagging poor unsuspecting socks. I gather the mateless matchless misfits in my grocery bag. I don’t know why I keep the widows of gobbled socks. I guess I live in denial that there is a sock monster, hoping that instead there are corners of closets and pockets in sports bags where long lost mates are imprisoned. I keep thinking I will find them and free them and reunite them with their mates.

Years down the road I finally toss them, first taking the best 100% cotton ones out to be used for washing my bathroom mirrors or polishing my guitars. I talk to myself, giving me permission to let them go, telling myself they have filled the measure of their creation.

I think of my Great grandparents, going to so much effort for a single pair of socks. I feel ashamed that I have so many. So many that I only need to wash them in my nifty difty electric washing machine once every few weeks. How fortune smiled upon us to bring our feet to this time and place.


  1. ahh. sweet memories. (well maybe) but there was a great satisfaction when you arrived home with a van full of great smelling clean laundry. the only problem was that it then all needed to be put away. and remember the time you brought back more than laundry! you invited some girl, and her family, to come stay for a week. you met her doing laundry. i believe they were homeless or members of the circus or something like that and needed a place to stay for a bit. you, of course, generously offered shelter. what incredible goodness can come from a dirty sock!

  2. How true Libby...she always opened her door and her heart to those in need. What a great example she has been to us. And how fortunate are we all that we have socks to keep our feet warm. Joseph was advised to bring plenty of socks for his mission as it is apparently more difficult to get good socks over in the Czech Republic. How blessed are we that we were able to find socks that would cushion his feet and wick the moisture away at the same time. We are so spoiled and I remain ever grateful. Thank you for this kind reminder Cori!!

  3. I don't think shame is the right response. I think relief is allowed. But this is why I don't knit socks. If I did, and I wore them, I'd have to find some way of motating without touching the ground. Bad enough I spend $6.50 on a very cool pair of socks at Eddie Bauer around Christmas time and have a huge hole in the heal by March. What if I had taken the time to actually KNIT the dang things?

    And about your pleasure at having set everything into neat order - and trying to convince yourself that it's worth deliberately planning a life around? I know that, too. For me, the base memory is clean, neat notebooks on the first day of school - all the paper crisp and stacked evenly, all the dividers snappy and clear - nothing stuck into the covers haphazardly. How long did that last, I wonder? An hour? A day?

    There is too much life to fit neatly into a notebook. Or a hamper.