I must have been around three years old when my mother decided to enlist me for sock folding duty. It was a task she took very seriously because protecting your feet from the dangers of humidity and water accumulation inside military boot had been her worst enemy as she went up through the ranks. Maybe we didn’t realize then how hard it must have been for her to do everything her male counterparts did, lifting heavy equipment, and hiking with a 50 lb backpack, just to prove she had what it took to be an Army officer.
Once or twice a week we’d meet up at the foot of her bed, dump the laundry basket(s) on her bed. She’d always prime me with a few pointers before setting me lose on the pile. The goal was to grab socks and paired them as my mother folded shirts and uniforms for both of us as quickly as possible. Afterwards, she’d reviewed how well I faired to determine the appropriate reward.
The exchange went something like this:
Mom: This one goes with this one. She puts two white Hanes branded size 6 to 10 women’s tube socks together.
Me: How can you tell?
Mom: Look at the imprints of the foot in these ones because their owner walks around the marquesina (car garage) with them on!
A tickle fight ensues.
Every single time I heard the washing machine I got excited. Would I be able to beat my best folding record? How many socks would be in this load? Would she take me to Big Cheese Pizza afterwards? All the encouragement and praise over finding the missing sock built my confidence so strong had me training like an Olympian. I learned how to spot accurate matches, where they would get stuck in the laundry process (behind the laundry basket or somewhere on the floor as we made our way to the machine in our tiny apartment’s galley kitchen). It became more than a game, a privilege; a sacred ritual between mother and daughter that would be passed on for generations.
I took my job so seriously that I took my skills on the road. At grandma’s, I would beg to fold my grandpa’s socks and she’d humored me so much my cousins got in on the game when they were visiting. At school, I would help kids figure out which socks matched based on features like bows, printed patterns and footprints. By the time my sister was born in the late 80s, I had taken over the responsibility of washing the loads of socks just so I could teach her to appreciate the art of the laundry stack sorting patterns my mom so much valued.
We all each had a different folding method, and it boggles the mind as to how tolerant and cooperative we were with each other’s demands. My sister liked to tuck them into each other, which my mom also did on occasion, but I refused to have my socks rolled up in a ball because they’d stretch. Each sock drawer looked different but each pair looked identical! You couldn’t tell who had done the work as we all perfected the art and style the others preferred. Mom insisted that undoing the effort of another family member was disrespectful and inconsiderate, so we always communicated with each other before making tweaks to the folding standard work instructions. For this guidance I am eternally grateful since she taught me the importance of valuing other’s work and being tolerant of imperfections. Doing your best is good enough, and no one should tell you otherwise.
Taking this lesson to heart was liberating. As a student, I became more forgiving of myself when a lost a point here and there. As a wife, I don’t blow up when my husband forgets to follow an established family protocol like placeling the laundry where it goes; I just roll with it. Sometimes these faux pas have generated better ideas of how to address a particular task. Continuous improvement = embracing change. My husband still struggles from time to time as his chore failure PTSD like responses indicate some real emotional trauma surrounding the subject. He foes his best to follow my lead and let it go. As an engineer, we both know certain defects are acceptable as they don’t change the form, fit or function of the design. Life works out this way too. No one is perfect!
The quaint yet powerful lessons from the laundry pile shaped my temperament in ways no other exercise or parenting theory had until the moment. Observing became an obsession, a source of knowledge and wisdom that got me through the worst situations by taking advantage of the patterns that presented actionable solutions. Something simple, playing memory games with socks, became a source of joy. I was proud to have a task that mattered, that brought meaning into my life beyond the menial chore it presented to others. Irrefutable proof that we, as humans, have the power to transform even the most trivial job into something wonderful.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I found it fitting that Dobby was freed from indentured servitude by a dirty tube sock. Imagine how crucial it was for the person that did the laundry load and folding to present Harry with the clean pair of socks that ultimately led to this magical moment. (Probably another house elf who dreamed of being free?) A task that enslaved lead to a gesture of freedom. Justice was served thanks to their diligent efforts. I’m sure my mom smiled when she saw the scene. I’d bet she would have used this imagery too if I had been younger and had refused to play along with her real life application memory game. “Mija, you could be folding the socks that free Dobby!”
Give it to my mom, the Colonel and Army strategist, to turn such a dull task into a labor of love.
I miss you ma!