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Listener Essay - Folding Laundry

    Pamela Ethington is a writer who divides her time between Syracuse, where her home is, and Woodstock, N.Y., where her heart is. Her work has been published in New Millenium Writings. She is a student of author Martha Frankel in Woodstock.

Folding Laundry

I fold the towels first. They’re easy — big squares. I like to have that feeling of accomplishment, the stack all neat on the couch ready to be taken upstairs. I didn’t always do it that way. There was a time I folded the socks first. Before the two jobs, when I was still a stay-at-home-Mom, I’d get the laundry as soon as the dryer buzzed its ending note. My son, seeing me ascend the cellar stairs with basket in hand, would dive onto the couch. “Throw the clothes on me!” he’d yell. So I’d bury him under a warm avalanche of towels and sweatshirts and socks. And that’s how I got into the habit of folding the socks first. So he could enjoy his warm cocoon a little longer.

I’d forgotten entirely about that until the other day when my daughter saw me with the laundry and said, “Throw the clothes on me!” She’s seven years younger and it seemed soon after he grew out of warm laundry, she grew into it. Cut from the same towel, those two. Although these days, she’s off busy with her activities and the laundry is more often cold, having sat in the dryer long after the buzzing ends. But I enjoy her reminder of days past and of her similarity to her brother.

Especially now when what preoccupies my thoughts while I’m folding these sweatshirts and towels of hers is the fact that she at 15 is leaving in a few months to spend a year in Thailand as an exchange student, just as he left at 15 to study in Argentina.

Owen returned from that exchange year unscathed, although when Catharine started her application process with the Rotary and we were assigned the same counselor, I found out that Owen had been held up at gunpoint in Buenos Aires the night before he flew back to the States.

“He didn’t tell you about that?” the counselor asked, laughing and shaking his head.

Unscathed, maybe, but with the bug to see the world firmly planted in his soul, spending a college semester abroad in Zimbabwe, and breaks exploring any part of the world he could afford to get to – the Rajasthan Desert, Sarajevo, Mozambique.

Now it’s Catharine’s turn to go out, see the world.

A half-remembered story floats at the edge of my mind. Something about a fool who, having lost a coin, throws his one remaining coin after it. When asked why, he says he sent it to find the other one.

But I’m not that fool, and I have no illusions. I know that when Catharine goes, it won’t be to find her brother, but to find herself. And when she leaves, I will have to say goodbye to this version of her forever.

When Owen was 14, he spent a summer with my mother in Woodstock. It was the same summer that Saugerties was hosting an anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock concert. She wouldn’t take him to it, but she called me one day and said that he had come up with a plan to walk from her house into town and up Overlook Mountain, where he thought he might be able to see the concert, at least.

I said no. It was probably 15 miles roundtrip – too far for a 14-year-old to walk alone and, besides, there were often strange people hanging out on the village green.

She listened and then said gently, “Oh, honey, you can’t stifle his spirit.”

That’s a hard lesson for me, that sometimes the best thing you can give your children is just the freedom to explore the world.

I last heard from Owen maybe a week ago. He had made his way west from Canada to Canberra. He was headed for the mountains of the Northern Territory, and then after that to Borneo, Bangkok, Tibet, Beijing and from there to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian train.

Catharine’s hoping that he’ll choose not to linger in Thailand and doesn’t reach Nakhon Pathom where she is headed, so that she can be the first to plant the family flag there.

People ask me where they got this wanderlust, this obsession with traveling. I profess ignorance, but there’s the open atlas on the stand, next to this couch where I fold laundry. Where they lay dreaming under warm towels.

So I remind myself again today that we can create the home our children go out from, and hopefully return to, but the journey they need to chart for themselves. As hard as it is, it’s time for me to once again let go.

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