Yesterday the ironing crisis in our house reached a critical point. The piles of shirts, skirts, and slacks balanced on a maple rocking chair in my bedroom attained such historic proportions that I could no longer ignore them. At least three dozen articles of clothing – most of them mine because long ago my husband Scott learned to send out his shirts – required the attention of a hot, steamy iron. That doesn’t count the 30 or so linen napkins that graced our table at various dinners from Thanksgiving to New Years, which were washed and then relegated to the realm of forgotten textiles.
This is embarrassing and I am loath to reveal it in such a public, Oprah-esque way except that I can’t think of a better way to tell this story.
Scott gave the rocking chair to me 20 years ago on my birthday. I’m fond of it but haven’t sat in it for years because, well, because it’s always covered in wrinkled clothing. But in the late fall of 1993, in a different house six miles inland, I moved the rocker from my bedroom to the room across the hall that, with its new dormer and fresh carpet and built-in cupboards, would serve as a nursery for our imminent twins. I bought some lovely watercolory fabric for the curtains with enough left over for a seat and back cushion for the rocker. I figured I’d be spending a lot of time rocking over the next year and I was right. The seamstress I hired did a beautiful job fashioning both the cushions and the curtains, immeasurably better than I could have dreamed of doing myself.
Over the next few months the cushions stayed perfect. Then the babies arrived and before long the cushions weren’t so pristine anymore: baby spit-up, stray squirts of breast milk, later juice and gummy cheerios, still later crayon marks and smears of play dough. Though the cushions turned dingy, I never thought of more than spot cleaning them because I assumed that the cushions had been permanently sewn into the covers.
Ten years ago, when our sons turned four, we sold that house and moved closer to town. I left the curtains for the new owners, but the cushions and the rocker made their way to our new home. The smart thing to do would have been to chuck the cushions, but I felt the need to keep some remnant of that fabric close at hand. It spoke to me of hundreds of dimly-lighted midnights with a baby or two in my arms, the sweetness of rocking and singing or the desperate whisperings of please please please, darling boy, go back to sleep. In a corner of our new bedroom, the chair began to take on clothes faster than a leaky boat takes on water. Until yesterday, I hadn’t had a visual on those cushions in years.
When I removed the ironing for triage, out of the corner of my eye I noticed something I had never seen before: an overlap of fabric indicating a zipper. Fourteen and a half years since I tied them onto the rocker, I realized the covers were removable.
“No way.” I said, shaking my head, and in a moment both the back and seat covers were in the machine for a long-delayed bath. The mechanism to keep them clean and fresh had been there all along but my lack of curiosity and the fuss and busyness of daily life had not given me eyes to see.
Why is it so easy to get used to the familiar, grimy things in our lives that they become virtually invisible? How many hidden zippers are lurking under our piles of ironing or among our daily comings and goings? What else waits 14 years to be discovered, ripped off and scrubbed clean? Eastertide isn’t a bad time to look for the zippers in our lives – for that quiet moment or that seemingly random encounter that causes you to see something clearly.
For many years now I’ve been writing personal essays that start with simple moments of daily modern life and then eventually wend their way to matters of faith. And what a hypocrite I’ve felt each time I’ve written about reconciliation or doing hard things or choosing to act in a Christ-like way. And here’s why: Since 2000, with the exception of one phone conversation when she had by-pass surgery, I haven’t seen or spoken to my sister nor have I made an effort to do so.
However, the events of recent months have served as a Gordian knot to reverse this estrangement. I’ll call my sister “Peg” because her story is complicated and not mine to tell. Peg has lived in the Midwest for years, but agreed to come to upstate New York to care 24/7 for our mother in December when Mom was essentially kicked out of a nursing home for refusing to do physical and occupation therapy.
In advance of Peg’s arrival, we spoke on the phone several times. The conversations were focused on train fares and arrival times and our mother’s condition. While initially strained because of our long lack of communication, they became remarkably natural and cordial as long as we stayed within the confines of the current situation. Arriving at my mother’s apartment the night before we were to spring her from the nursing home, I felt anxious about seeing Peg after so long. She is 16 years older than I am, and, as the oldest of the four children, she often took care of me, the youngest by many years. Her older son and I grew up more like siblings. Still we never had the close sisterly relationship that I often envy my friends for sharing with their sisters and a sad set of family circumstances led to our years of mutual silence.
But there I was at the front door with my bag and my laptop. The gap of eight years, since she last came to New York to make peace with our father who was dying of lung cancer, had pushed her into her sixties and me into my forties and we both stood at the doorway gulping back the shock.
Because it was snowing hard, I had called her when I turned off the Utica exit on the Thruway. She had put the tea kettle on. After I dropped my things, we sat at our mother’s kitchen table and drank tea and talked. And talked and talked and talked.
Gently and instinctively, we didn’t talk about the past or any hurtful, sorrowful, regretful things. We talked about our families, and our brothers, and what the heck to do about our mother. We talked about today and tomorrow.
Here’s the hard truth: On my best day as a Christian, I could not have picked up the phone to call her in the Midwest to start that conversation. My mother’s health crisis became an opportunity, a suddenly revealed zipper that allowed us to whip off the veil that separated us…not completely perhaps...but enough for healing to start.
Last week my sister returned to the Midwest. My mother is on her own in a new apartment with meals on wheels and Lifeline. We don’t know how long this equilibrium of our extended and far-flung family life will last but for today, this day, all is well.
In the midst of my ironing marathon, my sister called and I happily picked up the phone. We talked about her trip home, her grandchildren, my sons, our mother and how the hard it will be to get through the next four weeks without the TV show Lost.
Despite how well this has turned out, I’m frightened to think what other sorrows and difficulties in my life could be redeemed if I choose. What possibilities are there for forging new relationships and challenging old fears and casting aside old stumbling blocks. As one who knows I am lavishly beloved of God, I should be able to open my eyes to see how easy it is to do such things. But without the miraculous grace of the previously unseen zipper and the knowledge of how to work it, I’m not so sure how to start.
As I walked back into my bedroom and the pile of clothing on the floor, my eye caught the empty rocking chair. Instead of returning to the ironing, I sat in the chair and turned my face to the familiar cushion: stained, faded but so so so sweet.