I’m finishing up my last load of laundry. My laundry. In my busy household, I always seem to be the last one to sneak a load into the washer. I work from home. Yoga pants or shorts and a comfy t-shirt are as fancy as I dress most days, so I rarely need first dibs on the washer and dryer. My teenage girls can’t tell the difference between the clean and dirty clothes on their floors, so they just throw it ALL in, rushing to launder what they need for school or more exciting vacations than I’m taking. My husband, a typical engineer, does his own laundry methodically each and every Sunday, and I don’t want to mess with a good thing. My mother has a small wardrobe and needs her laundry done more regularly than I do.
When I finally get a chance to wash my own clothes, I hang my shirts to dry. It means one less step in the process—not to mention they last longer when they’re not tossed around in a hot dryer. And though I only manage a few loads in the space of a month, I still gaze with dismay—and even a little bit of awe—at the number of well-worn t-shirts hanging in the doorways of my laundry room, bedroom, and bathroom.
This is a LOT of shirts. I’m venturing a guess they number between thirty and forty. Wow. Thirty to forty shirts? And I wouldn’t wear most of them in public beyond a fast chauffeur run or to walk the dogs in the dark.
Yet, as I contemplate pruning a few for the giveaway pile, I find myself unable to do it. First, these shirts are worn just right. Second, though everyone else’s laundry trumps mine, I’ll never have to resort to scratching splattered spaghetti sauce from the front of a shirt and wearing it one more time.
But there is nothing special about any one of them.
I admit it. I am that girl. I am the one who struggles to throw anything away—even worn-out clothing with no sentimental value. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the result of growing up in a household that struggled financially. I was buying my own clothing by the time I was 11 or 12 with money I earned babysitting. It was how I avoided decade-old hand-me-downs from distant cousins or fashion disasters from the discount racks at Woolworth’s or K-Mart. Still, I still don’t quite comprehend this often-unreasonable need to hold onto things.
I pause to catch my breath after shifting so many fresh-smelling shirts from the doorways to my closet, and then my gaze drops to what lurks in the corner of the laundry room—the miscellaneous items that don’t quite fit with the regular loads but never seem to get washed on their own. They simply wait there for someone to take notice, gathering dust until the pile threatens to topple over.
The top item in the heap is a small, old-fashioned, pink and blue baby quilt. At first, I’m horrified to see it there. After being buried in the pile for who knows how many months, apparently, it has finally risen to the top. It’s ragged and speckled with stains of unknown origin—not to mention dappled with dryer lint.
Why is it here? Who placed it in the pile? Me? One of my teenagers? Perhaps my husband moved it here from another pile, not knowing exactly what to do with it.
I carry it to my bedroom where I lift it up and hold it out for a gander. Then I look closer. This detail, I knew before, but today, it takes on new significance.
This baby quilt isn’t just any quilt. It’s old. It’s ripped. It’s stained.
And inside it is another baby quilt.
Apparently, my grandmother made the original one for my mother when she was a baby. When it began to wear, Grandma pieced and sewed another. However, instead of quilting fresh batting into the new cover, she simply dropped the old quilt down inside, sewed it closed, and tacked it together with bits of yarn at the corners of the individual pieces.
Why? Maybe that was the norm. The quilt originated, after all, in the days of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Or . . . maybe not.
Maybe, like me, and like so many in my family, my grandmother was a keeper of things. Maybe she couldn’t bear to part with the old quilt, made by hand for her baby girl, but couldn’t think of any other purpose for it, so she hid it inside something new.
I spread the quilt across my bed. I smooth its worn surface and then reach down inside to run my fingers over the older stitching there. I think about my family and the way we keep things, and the way we keep passing them down, even if they are ragged and dusty and don’t seem to serve any purpose beyond reminding us of earlier days.
And then I think about how we do the same thing with our stories. Some folks I know don’t seem to have the same repertoire of family lore my family has. They also have neater and cleaner houses and a lot less junk. When I mention writing Calling Me Home based on a bit of family lore, some folks look fascinated, but not particularly inspired. And when I mention thinking through the new story, they probably wonder why I don’t leave the many bits of family history that might make their way into my manuscript safely in the past.
Though I really must sort through my shirts soon and discard what I don’t need, I suspect my struggle to let go may be innate. Maybe it has something to do with my DNA, with my family’s compulsion to keep things—not least of all, the stories, to pass them, along with a ragged, double-quilted baby blanket, from generation to generation.
Perhaps some of us were born to be the keepers of things and the keepers of the stories.