Laundry Room - Amanda Mander
My dad’s fingers caressed the hallway wall searching for clues: an abandoned picture hook, a doorjamb, a forgotten blob of paint that was never smoothed over. His other hand was warm in mine, trembling slightly with his 84 years.
He stepped carefully on the tan carpet, his toes pointing outward to increase his stability. Silver hair, thin and wispy, was immaculately combed back. His shoulders were hunched close to his ears.
“Is it far?” he asked me in his deep voice, filling the hallway with baritone notes.
“No Dad, but we have to take the elevator.” How would he ever find the buttons without me?
Complications after a cataract operation had left him blind ten years ago. For a former diplomat, who read five newspapers a day, I felt this must have been worse than losing a limb. I’d persuaded him to leave Washington, D.C., his home for 65 years, and join me in the Pacific Northwest. Now, we were making our way to the apartment laundry room for the first time.
I admired his courage to move across the country to Seattle in his condition. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d spent his life pursuing adventures. First as a Marine, then in the National Security Council of Johnson’s White House advocating against involvement in Vietnam. He was always full of stories about famous politicians, and had a signed photograph of JFK and Jackie that I’d recently hung for him in his new apartment.
We continued down the hallway: apartment 102, apartment 103, and then 104, brass numbers catching the light of the fluorescents above. Next came the fake plant
with fingerprints of others disturbing the dust on the leaves. Then we passed a wicker chair and table with a ceramic bunny holding a basket of peppermints. The pervasive sticky smell reminded me of Teresa, the manager of this senior apartment building. She came from Boston and had a fondness for stuffed bee toys that held signs like, “Bee back soon.”
When we reached the elevator, my dad’s hand groped the wall for the “up” button. I watched as it got close and then far away again. I wanted to call out hot, hot, warm--cold like the game I played with him as a child, when hunting for my birthday presents. But I knew from experience that my dad wanted as little help as possible.
“There’s a laundry service across the street, Dad.”
“Yes, they could do your laundry every week.”
“That’s a nice suggestion sweetie, but I prefer to do it myself.” I’d learned that my dad was more than capable—actually very clever—at adjusting to life without his sight. He memorized the instructions for his favorite microwave meals. He cut the tags from his blue towels to distinguish them from his yellow ones. And he always bought black socks to avoid mismatched pairs. The best help I could give him was to let him do as much as possible on his own.
But still, I worried. The first night after I led him around and around his new apartment chronicling the layout, I thought he’d be safe. Instead, after I’d left, he’d opened the front door thinking it was his bedroom, and locked himself out. Hearing unfamiliar noises in the hallway, one of the neighbors called the police and others opened their doors wondering what was going on. It was my dad’s jovial spirit that
eventually reassured all. That is how my dad met his neighbors. He found it funny, but I found it terrifying.
Standing by the elevator now, I kept my own hands at my side and tried hard not to press the up button myself. He’d discovered the embossed arrow and had begun to push it by the time I realized he was depressing not the button, but the label that said “up.”
“Dad, move your finger to the left a little and you’ll find the button. You’re just pressing the label.”
“Oh, golly. Here we go,” he said, as the button, finally, lit up like a beacon. The elevator revved its engine in the basement below.
“How are things with the kids, sweetie?” he asked, as if this walk to the laundry room was an ordinary one.
“They’re ok but I get so frustrated sometimes.”
“Every mom has bad days. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
“I don’t want to lose my cool with them like I have been.”
“Understood. Just remember, you’re a wonderful mother. You’ll figure out another way.”
My dad’s gentle words calmed my worries. He believed in me. He always had.
When I was little, I’d often wait on the front door stoop until my dad got home. As each car approached, I’d look up from combing my Barbie doll’s long brown hair to see if the car was red and sporty. If it was, I’d jump off the stoop, skip to the driveway, pigtails flying, and wait for my handsome dad to open his door and give me a hug.
“How’s my princess?”
“I got an A on my math test.”
“I knew you would, you clever girl.”
There were times when I didn’t get along with my dad. After my parents divorced, I thought he somehow forgot that it was my mother who’d divorced him, not me, his teenage daughter. I longed to visit him, but rarely was invited. When I did go, I felt he knew everything about the latest congressional hearing, but nothing about me.
“Dad, I got the lead in the play.” I remember phoning him one night. “Will you come watch?”
“No sweetie, I have to work. Good job, though.”
As an adult, I came to understand that he took refuge in his work to deal with the pain of his failed marriage. Although he never said a bad word about my mother and kept his feelings to himself, I didn’t understand, at 16, that his disinterest had nothing to do with me.
The elevator doors opened with a whoosh at the second floor. An obvious clue awaited us: the thumping sound of clothes banging against the walls of metal cylinders. We headed toward the noise: first the railing, a short wall, an open doorway, and finally, metal chairs lined up against a wall. My dad memorized as we walked, repeating out loud the places we’d been to prepare for his return journey.
I surveyed the room and took my dad to the closest washer. The air smelled like clean sheets drying in the summer sun, even though this room had no windows. After loading his laundry, I helped him feel the slots the quarters needed to go into, and the button to set the temperature. We pushed the quarters in together to start the machine.
“This works just like the washer in my old place. How many machines are here?”
“There are three washers and three dryers, Dad.”
“Oh good. Let’s hope they don’t break down very often.”
I noticed that operating the dryer would be more difficult. It had only flat buttons, with no ridges—no discernible difference between “permanent press” and “whites”. Imagining the accidental shrinkages, I found myself strategizing. If I were to apply a line of thick tape around the outline of the “permanent press” button, my dad would be able to feel the difference. Then again, the neighbours might peel it off.
My dad didn’t always do his own laundry. When I was a baby, we lived in Indonesia in a beautiful house with servants. This was at the height of my dad’s diplomatic career. He and my mother were a very glamorous couple. He was tall with sparkling blue eyes and jet-black hair. She was petite and blond, with the elegance of her northern Italian heritage. All the pictures from this time showed my parents smiling, having fun—whether it was at a costume ball where my dad dressed as a sheik and my mother as Puss in Boots or on their boat “La Dolce Vita.” He was a new dad, very well respected in his work and married to the woman of his dreams. He loved talking about those happy times.
“One night we were invited to a big dinner by the leader of Indonesia,” he’d always begin this story. “He had the reputation for choosing the two most beautiful women at the party to sit on either side of him. That night, he chose your mother. She felt honored until he requested she start eating before him. That’s when we realized she was his “taster”—making sure the food wasn’t poisoned.”
No matter how many times I’d heard it, I’d always smile at the end of this story. He couldn’t see my smile anymore so I laughed a little to let him know it’s still one of my favorites.
The roar of water filling the machine was replaced by a gurgling sound as my dad’s clothes were rocked back and forth through the sudsy water. Relieved that his laundry task was well on its way, I guided my dad to the waiting metal chairs.
“If I were to wash clothes here, it would cost a fortune!” I laughed. I had a hard time keeping up with laundry at home. My four kids played soccer--most of the time in mud, due to the Pacific Northwest’s wet climate.
“You work full time and do all your own cleaning. Still, you make time to take care of your old dad.”
“I like spending time with you, Dad.”
“I just hate taking time away from the rest of your life. I don’t want to be a burden.”
But he wasn’t. I was inspired by his positive approach to life, despite his losses; thankful he was nearby, continuing to be my greatest advocate. I had found him a new physical home, and in return, he was giving me an emotional one. One that I hadn’t even realized I’d missed, until now.
I was still holding his hand when the washer beeped. It was time for the dryer.
Amanda Mander writes creative non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Her work explores the human condition and our relationship with nature. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and makes sure to walk on a beach every day.