Memoir

Sibling Rivalry Redux

As parents grow old, the children who care for them don’t always grow up

From the July/August 2009 magazine

When my mother suffered a mild heart attack last year, my brother and I surprised each other by showing up at my parents’ ranch-style bungalow in a leafy suburb of Ottawa at the same time. Mom was still in the hospital, with Dad by her side, so for much of that first day there was nothing to do but ramble around the house, looking at photos, checking out our old bedrooms, and eating the Ikea cookies Mom keeps stashed in the cupboard.

I was flipping through back issues of Good Housekeeping in the weakening afternoon light when Andy suddenly decided to wash the interior of my dad’s navy blue Buick Regal. The next thing I knew, he was stuffing all four of the car’s floor mats into the washing machine. I was horrified. My mom’s washing machine, a Maytag she purchased from a builder friend more than forty years ago, offers a million choices in terms of fabric colour, heat, length of wash cycle, etc. I can’t run it to this day. Worse, the mats were caked with all-season filth.

Thoughts on Cleanliness

From the discussions of the “I Love Doing Laundry” group at experienceproject.com

Illustration By William Edmonds
William Edmonds

“It’s the thought of going from filthy to squeaky clean. I love doing laundry because it’s like washing your life clean. HOT, soapy water and dirty laundry… then clean water flowing through all the fabric, rinsing away all the washed out stickies, dirties, smudgies, smellies…

Then! Into the dryer with everything. Dryer sheets and tumbling until everything’s soft and renewed… waiting to be folded and put neatly away.

It’s really therapeutic!

The only thing that would make it better is if I could have one of those industrial-sized front loading washers that LOCKS and that you can watch the cleaning happen!… and one of those huge dryers that holds, like 5 loads. Oh, yeah, baby!”

As the eldest of four children, I’d been the mother hen, providing a good example, bossing everyone around (which included ratting people out—or not, depending on the bribe). But we’re all adults now; my little brother just celebrated his fifty-first birthday. So I hesitated a moment before blurting out, “Mom’s gonna kill you.” Andy winced. It was too late, though; cold water was filling the tub. Once in gear, the machine started making loud burping noises, punctuated every so often by a mechanical scream, but since neither of us was sure if that was how it usually sounded, we waited out the cycle on tenterhooks. When the house finally fell silent, I assumed Andy would take the mats outside to dry on the front lawn. Instead, in a fit of bravado, he crammed them into Mom’s ancient dryer, where they were sure to disintegrate, leaving bits of twisted rubber melted—no, fused—to the inside of the machine for eternity.

The next day, my dad and I picked up Mom at the hospital and drove her home. (Andy had flown the coop the night before, after running an empty cycle through the washer and vacuuming the dryer—twice.) I held on to her arm as she slowly climbed the stairs to the front porch, shuffled inside, and carefully lowered herself into her favourite chair. She was happy to be home. “Honey, there’s just one thing I really need help with: washing my nighties.” Uh-oh. “Do the pink and cream ones,” she instructed, “on the warm wash, cold rinse cycle, and change the setting to a small, no, maybe make that a medium-sized load. They need fifteen minutes in the dryer, then take them out and hang them on hangers from the shower curtain rod.”

Sure, just give me a sec, I said, and tore all the way down the narrow hallway to my parents’ bedroom, where I immediately telephoned my youngest sister, an insurance lawyer in Toronto. “Should I serve Andy up to Mom, tell her he defiled the Maytag? Or should I just take a chance and wash her stuff? ” I asked in a hoarse whisper. In other words, which would be least likely to kill her? Martha was silent for a moment. “I wash all my boys’ filthy clothes in the machine,” she then replied matter-of-factly. “It should be fine.” I figured my sister knew her stuff; if not, I could probably blame her down the road. So I threw the perfumy bundle of cotton and lace into the wash, and left a message on Andy’s answering machine: “Mom’s gonna kill you.”

In the end, the nighties came out fine, and my mother never suspected a thing. But while I’d enjoyed henning about, I was also slightly disconcerted that, through it all, Andy had never told me to mind my own business. Something about being back in the family home, with its avocado appliances and faded graduation photos, had cast a spell on us, making us act as if it was 1968. I couldn’t help but imagine us a few years down the road (when our parents would need even more help), running around the house, flicking each others’ noses and shouting, “Now we’re even,” in an attempt to figure out how we fit into a world we’d long forgotten.

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