Folks living in small southern towns are notorious for airing each other’s laundry, and growing up in Nowhere, Central Georgia, my family’s laundry was so juicy it would go viral in hours (before the internet and “going viral” were a thing).
At a young age, maybe five, I remember my family, minus Daddy who always refused to go to church, visiting a local baptist church with my great aunt. I remember sitting on a wooden pew between my great aunt and my mama half-listening to the sermon given by an overweight pastor in his best Gone with the Wind drawl. The pew was situated to the left of the pulpit and maybe two or three rows from the front. The only other details I remember of this particular church visit, other than the music and the stained glass windows, is my mama leaving church pissed off and demanding she’d never go back. To this day, I don’t know exactly what that preacher said, and I’m a little afraid to ask my mama, but what I do know is he crossed the line airing too much of my family’s laundry to the congregation.
I may have been a youngin’, but I knew my daddy was different than other daddies because friends (and cousins) weren’t allowed to spend the night at my house if Daddy was home – which in adult language translated to if her dad is home and not in jail or the halfway house, it isn’t safe for you to stay the night there. These adults had a good point. My alcoholic father was unpredictable, especially if he came home drunk in the middle of the night. We never knew if he’d come in quiet as a mouse and pass out, or if he’d come in dancing and singing a Hank Williams song, or if he’d come in ready to yell and throw random household items at my mom’s head. Daddy had DUIs, and I remember walking onto our front porch to ask him a question once as he lit a hand-rolled cigarette which I later learned was an illegal joint. Daddy had a temper and a mouth, and I’m pretty sure he never turned down an opportunity to swing on somebody when fights broke out at his second home – the local bar. Daddy was also a racist who wouldn’t let our black neighbors set foot on our porch when they’d come ask if my brother and I could play. In our small southern town, there was no avoiding the gossip this kind of dirty laundry manifested.
After Daddy was murdered at a bar in his hometown of Nowhere, North Georgia, Miles, my older brother, and I lived in a single-parent home for several years. Mama worked two, maybe even three, jobs making us latchkey kids. When we got off the bus, we’d walk up the steep gravel hill to our double-wide trailer, which Mama and Daddy had bought together, throw our backpacks down, grab a snack, usually just Bagel Bites or a Hot Pocket, and veg out in front of the t.v. watching Duck Tales and Talespin. Mama always left us a list of chores to do each day, and she meant they better be done by the time she got home.
- Make the house spotless
- Do the laundry
- Do your homework
Making the house look spotless took precedence because Mama would see the cleanliness of the house as soon as she walked in. A clean house was always very important to Mama. She’d always say, “Like Great Granny always told us growing up, ‘You might be poor, but you can be clean.’” Miles and I would run around the house throwing stuff in our rooms and closing our bedroom doors, wiping down bathroom and kitchen counters, vacuuming the carpet and sweeping the floors, and most of the time, washing all the dishes. We didn’t have a dishwasher and washing the dishes was our least favorite task.
Once, Miles decided to put all the dirty pots and pans in the oven so we wouldn’t have to wash them but the dishes would appear to be done. Mama was so proud of us when she got home. Then, she turned the oven on to preheat it for dinner. After a few minutes, smoke billowed out of the oven, and the house filled with the smell of burned food. When she opened the oven and saw all those dirty pots and pans, boy was she mad.
Often, after we speed cleaned the house, Miles would go off through the woods to our uncle’s house, Papa Rooster’s house, or our neighbor’s house, leaving me alone to do homework and the chore of laundry. Rarely, laundry got done. We’d hide our dirty laundry in our rooms under our beds or in our closets to keep the laundry basket in the laundry room looking less full. When we ran out of clean clothes or towels, we’d throw a mixed load of laundry in the washer while we did our other chores or while I did my homework. Most of the time, we’d forget about it until we needed something as we got ready for school. We’d pull out whatever we needed from the washer and throw it into the dryer while we ran around doing other morning routines. Usually, our selected laundry was dry by the time we had to run out to meet the school bus. I’m not going to lie. I did have to wear a damp shirt or pants to school once or twice. The rest of the laundry would sit in the wash until we got home from school, until we needed something else from it, or until Mama found it and yelled at us.
The problem with leaving clothes in a washer, especially during the southern summer heat, is: they sour. Over time, I guess Mama got tired of yelling at us so she’d let our laundry sit in the washer until we put it in the dryer. I suppose she thought we’d eventually learn our lesson by wearing soured clothes to school one too many times. Come to think of it, I have a faint memory of Daddy yelling about laundry – maybe because he was drunk. After Daddy died, I wonder if laundry triggered some sort of trauma for Mama. Maybe, the trauma is why Mama always seemed to be distracted by survival, or maybe, she was simply just trying to survive as a widowed single mother.
By the time I reached middle school, Mama remarried. She got a better-paying job, and though it still seemed like she worked a lot, she no longer worked two or three jobs. We were also getting ready to move out of our double-wide trailer into a two-story, five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom house which my step-dad built with the help of his dad and a friend. Mama was also pregnant. As far as I was concerned, we were a happy family, and our family was growing as our quality of life was improving, but even then, I didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable with my mama.
I think the learning to be vulnerable with your mama boat sailed past us during our survival years. I always felt like my vulnerabilities were a burden for her, or that my emotions made me weak. I didn’t want to be a burden or weak, so I did the best I could to stay out of the way, to do as I was told, and to take care of myself. Plus, with a new baby coming, I felt like she wouldn’t have time to cater to me.
Standing at my sixth-grade locker, my eyes, along with three other pairs, ran across two purple permanent markered words on the front of my locker.
“Who would do that?” one friend asked. My three friends passed a look. I shrugged, tried calming my pounding heart, and gave my best I don’t give a shit response.
“It doesn’t matter. Someone’s just being an asshole.”
Deep down I knew who did it and so did they. I paid attention. I noticed when a certain classmate, not a friend of mine, would say, “Who smells musty?” and my friends would try to hide their grins while shrugging. I overheard lunchroom conversations between that classmate and my friends. “Why don’t you tell her? She’s your friend.”
In elementary school, I didn’t know better than soured clothes and musty armpits. In middle school, I was forced to know better.
My friends appeared to have a different sort of relationship with their mom. When I visited their houses, they talked about cute clothes and boys. I noticed folded fresh towels in the linen closet and deodorant, lotions, and perfumes on their countertops. I also noticed their moms doing their laundry, which is probably why they always wore wrinkle-free clothes that smelled like dryer sheets. By this time, I had learned how to do laundry without letting it sour, but getting it out of the dryer before it wrinkled and pressing my clothes were lessons I was working on mastering. As for the whole musty situation, it meant initiating a vulnerable conversation with my Mama, who inadvertently intimidated me, and because I couldn’t fix it myself I felt like a burden and weak. There was no getting around it though, I would have to air my laundry in order to find a solution.
On a trip to K-Mari, Mama pulled into a parking spot and popped out of the car leaving the windows down. I stayed behind, not wanting to go in, and contemplated how to get her attention to tell her what I needed. How would I even tell her what I needed? Then, it was like the universe heard my anxious thoughts because Mama leaned in the window and asked, “Do you need anything?” As my heart pounded in my ears and a heatwave flowed through my body, I responded, “Deodorant.”
Her distorted face turned into a neon sign with a grin, “Did you say deodorant?”
“Yes,” I mumbled, “Apparently I stink.”
I do not remember her reaction to my remark, probably because I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I blotted it out of my mind, but when she walked out of K-Mart, she had deodorant for her pungent daughter.
From the K-Mart day forward, I decided to keep deodorant in my backpack, and to live up to my bitchy, don’t give a shit attitude, every day I pulled it out in class (in the most obvious ways possible), applied it, and in the most dramatic tone said, “You know, I don’t want to stink.” I refused to let the classmate who graffitied my locker win. After all, I was accustomed to my dirty laundry being aired, and I had learned how to be a fighter and a survivor from the best of them.
Maybe, my girlfriends were afraid to hurt my feelings. Maybe, they were afraid of my don’t give a shit attitude. Who really knows. I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, but I did spend time wondering why Mama never sat me down for a conversation about sour clothes and deodorant. She always seemed fully focused on working, feeding us, clothing us, and giving us a roof over our heads. She even managed to give us much of what we wanted and vacations to the beach or Disney World. To this day, I will never understand how she managed it all. On the other hand, I don’t remember us talking about personal hygiene, what was going on at school, or anything else remotely personal. Often, it felt best to be a silent backseat passenger in her life because any hiccup would push her stress level over the edge. In her reality, maybe she didn’t have the time, energy, forethought, or desire to talk to us about souring laundry or deodorant simply because she was recovering from trauma, healing from grief, and surviving each day as it came. Time and deodorant, I have learned, are a privilege and laundry is always personal.
To this day, laundry remains personal to me. The smell of soured laundry agitates my emotions. Laundry is how I knew my budding relationship with my now-husband was serious. The instant our dirty laundry tossed around in the same washer, dispelling our dirt from the day and rinsing it clean meant more to me than fresh clothes. It meant getting personal, finally trusting someone enough with my vulnerability, my pain, my dirty past, and all the real shit life had thrown our way. It meant airing laundry and healing. It meant unconditional love and acceptance. It meant a fresh beginning.