By Alison Moncrieff
It was a week I thought I’d have alone in our house, but camp plans fell through for my boy and my girl was home with a cold. It was mid-August, hot and dry, and my children, decidedly not at camp or elsewhere, bounced off the walls like a couple of Superballs, like Boing Putty or Bouncy Clay. After bouncing, they dug holes in the back yard, filling them with water they diverted through aqueducts they made from PVC pipe. They experimented wildly with staples and spices, inventing power-food recipes for imaginary creatures with the ability to fly and heal. They had healing, escaping death even, on their minds. They painted in acrylics on the walls of their bedrooms. (Yes, I said it was okay!)
We were nearing the end of the week. I was anxious, short-fused. Come September, I’d be having brain surgery to remove a benign but growing tumor from my right frontal lobe, and I was preoccupied with that. More like terrified. I was only just getting my bearings since my mom died the year before, and the thought of brain surgery was daunting even before I remembered I’d have to go through it without her. And what if I died? This was the level of my fear. I tried to counter it with positive facts about the good odds of my survival and how brain surgeons really know what they are doing, etc. Those things didn’t exactly calm me down. When I told my kids about the surgery, my daughter (5) asked first about the details of the operation (“How do they get in there to take it out?”), then she asked if I was going to die. My son (8) sat close in with wide eyes. I stayed upbeat. I trotted out the positive facts about the good odds and capable surgeons, and I told them about Egyptians doing brain surgery thousands of years ago. I considered that I was lucky to be able to give them the answer I did.
Being there for daily stuff, like laundry and grieving and making food for people, and striving to look into my kids’ eyes without freaking them out with my fear was maybe the biggest challenge of my life so far. Because my natural impulse was to go limp and fall asleep.
There’s something about housekeeping, and this was before and after children and certainly before sadness and fear pervaded that summer, where I feel like my work is not only never done but is also always barely beginning to be started. So, sometimes I put it off. Our house was a scene of rich disarray. But I was making an effort. I hadn’t showered in a while. I was standing heavily and nearly unhinged and definitely smelly in a heap of laundry wondering if I should throw myself into the machine along with the clothes. It was all our laundry. Four people, all of the dirties. The red polish on my toenails was chipping away. It matched one of my daughter’s dresses (red background, pink polka dots) in a way that caught my eye. I was tired, so rather than doing actual thinking, my brain was just doing color matching.
Not much caught my eye in our house that week, so I gave myself over to it and took a photo. I would take more photos. Of all the colors, one by one, on the line. I started moving the laundry around, separating this seemingly insurmountable mountain range of dinge into small berms of color, one color per hill, every color. My task was now an art thing. The children helped me organize the media. My studio mind embraced my homemaker mind. It was awesome. I felt lighter. I felt like myself.
My 86 year-old dad had taken the bus to our house the day before to knock a couple items off my list of fix-it jobs because he knew I needed help. While I blushed as I put this able-bodied but octogenarian person to work, it felt good to have his help. What a guy! Clothesline installation was on the list. He installed my clothesline. (Cleaning my stovetop was not on the list. He. Cleaned. My. Stovetop. It was like having Jesus in my house.)
The clothesline is something I’d wanted for a really long time. Of course, line drying saves energy, but that allays only a tiny drop of the stinky guilt-spill I associate with tending a home in this era. Fact is, I truly enjoy hanging out the wash. I relish the choreography of the line swaying with the weight of the load. I like taking dry things down in their warm, stiff state, ironed by gravity and the sun. I do not think I inherited this joy because my mom dried her clothes in the drier and thought lines of drying laundry looked tacky. I ironed my Dad’s shirts while watching Santa Barbara on TV. (You know the order, right? Collar, yoke, sleeve, sleeve, placket, and body. And again!)
I love laundry trees, and one day I will have one of those 4-petaled metal lotuses strung with vinyl line. You know the ones, usually found growing out of an old yard equipped with a 50-year-old lemon tree, juniper shrubs, pink camelias, gnarled blooming roses, and a very old person who used to tend to it all but now sits in a comfy wicker chair enjoying the view. But for now, the clothesline is my chosen apparatus, and I like it fine.
That smelly day after Dad installed the line, I started out of order, with purple and strung the line with only purple. After that I stuck pretty much to the rainbow lineup and tacked on black and gray. I took day shots, night shots, and little videos with crickets and sirens singing in the distance. I waited for the right light. I didn’t want it to end. I asked myself: Have I hit upon something? Some serene state that will regularly give me the vision for integrating art and quotidian activities from here on out thereby alleviating the crazy-making stillness and fear I feel? My self did not have an answer, but warned me kindly against the phrase “from here on out.”
As I washed, pegged, and folded, I learned things about us. That we have too many clothes. That we have way too many blue clothes and not nearly enough yellow or orange. That our sock population needs to be cut in half, and some people should use antibacterial soap on their feet. That one of us has way more pink clothes than the rest of us together. That another keeps his t-shirts in circulation too long. That my own clothes are mostly black and gray, and that the bright colors I do let in and wear with pleasure came to me in one way or another because of my kids.
I wondered what would happen when I had cycled through all the colors. Would I keep this up? A friend asked if my family knew which days I washed which colors. But I hadn’t planned for the future nor filled anyone in on my agenda—I barely knew it myself. I didn’t ever intend for it to start or to keep on going. No, the rainbow laundry project was a pleasurable meditation I came up with so I wouldn’t lose that last screw (of course, I did not yet have actual screws to lose) on that particular day. A polka dot of play and beauty on a background of fear. That’s all. A thing a scared person taking care of children does to keep herself upright. I want to believe that there is always such a dot to be found. I want to believe they can grow together to edge out all the fear.
Being able to play in the midst of all my fear about the surgery was an unexpected gift from myself or the universe or both. That’s art for you! In the end, or rather, now, I am well. I had the operation, during which a very kind, handsome man with some mighty fine skills and a tie with giraffes on it cut out a piece of my skull, pulled out that weed of a tumor, scuffed up the topsoil a little, and put the bone patch back in secured with titanium plates (and screws). I didn’t have cancer, I was never sick. I lived. I had been very scared, but now the only thing I think I am is lucky and grateful.
When I’d gone through all the colors but white, I stopped doing the laundry for a while. I must have raised the bar a little bit, making regular old laundry-doing intolerable, but I got back on it eventually. I did wash the whites eventually (and have again, about 58 times since then). There are no photos of the whites, though there are always plenty of opportunities to take one. That’s the thing about laundry.
Alison Moncrieff writes, paints, pegs laundry, and raises chickens & children in Oakland, California. Her work most recently appeared in Entropy and is forthcoming from Red Bridge Press, Little Red Leaves Textile Series, and The East Bay Review.