DON’T LET THE BORING TOPIC TURN YOU OFF! PLEASE GIVE LAUNDRY A CHANCE!
Seriously, when Julie told me the topic for the week is laundry I cringed. How in the world am I going to write a blog’s worth on laundry? Then she told me that this blog has to include at least one photo, and I thought “Well I could make it a really BIG photo or I could include a lot of photos and then it will look like a normal length blog while not actually having to write too much about laundry.
When we were doing this writing project last year (aka The Project) we had some great topics. We started off by writing about home – my idea, it made perfect sense to me to begin with our various places in the world. Much of what Julie wrote was news to me because I knew only the bare bones of her life story. I’ve always been hesitant to ask Julie questions about her life because she has always seemed to be a very private person. If truth be told, as it should be, I was a little afraid of Julie when we first met. She was an imposing force at the restaurant where we worked – the head waitress, assistant manager, the key go-between between the bosses and the mostly undocumented Hispanic kitchen staff, and the employee who had been with the owners for the longest period of time. She also didn’t exactly like the waitresses that I became friends with, first one, and then another. To her credit that never made her not like me, at least not to my knowledge. My memories of Julie from that time are really spotty, but as other friends came and went, she was there. She watched me leave the restaurant to join the world of office administration, then thankfully asked me to come back and saved me from that very same world. It was during this second go-round of being co-workers that I either got to know her much better or started paying attention. And it was during this time that she asked me a question that completely changed my world.
Have I told you about this yet? I was 25 years old, unmarried, and pregnant by a guy I loved, but had just broken up with. We had different goals and it just wasn’t going to work between us, so one more time for old time’s sake became the wonder that is my daughter. I was scared and confused, so I talked to Julie about what to do. She was an single parent and I figured she could help me sort things out. I remember sitting at a booth in our restaurant, telling her how scared I was to tell my parents, and how I wasn’t sure that I could do this, that I could be a single mother. She said “Of course you can. The question is, do you want to?”
Did I want to? What a revelation! I usually thought in terms of should I or shouldn’t I, but once I put those away and thought about what I wanted, the answer was simple and clear. Mind you, it wasn’t easy, but it was a simple decision and I was happy.
Julie guided me through my pregnancy. There were other people who were as involved as Julie was, my brothers and sister-in-law who also lived in Chicago, but she was the one who could relate the most to what I was experiencing. She collected money from our co-workers to buy me a crib. She gave me a box of wishes for Ali: a bib from the University of Chicago so that she would be intelligent, a purple stuffed animal so that she would be creative, and a red wooden rattle so that she would appreciate the simple things. She also had to bear the brunt of some of my, shall we say, moodiness while I was pregnant. 1988 was the hottest summer on record in Chicago, and I was pregnant through most of it. Even now, even 24 years later, Julie still finds a way to periodically work it into the conversation about how I made her get off a bus (or two) because it was too hot and no one would let me sit down.
You’d have done the same, believe me! It was HOT. But then September came and Ali arrived at last and I was pretty sure I had no idea what to do. No, that’s not true. I didn’t always know exactly what was best, but I knew that I was doing my best and I was confident in most of my decisions. One of those decisions – not the one that had me drunk off of Black Russians the first time I asked my oldest brother to watch Ali while I went out with a friend – one of the good decisions was to accept Julie’s offer to babysit Ali. Julie worked during the day and I watched her five year old son, then we would swap places in the afternoon and she would watch Ali while I worked the night shift. There were some long nights after I picked up Ali, when she had slept for just long enough to want to be awake and playing with mom when we got back to our apartment. I would beg and plead for her to just go to sleep, which works about as well as you can imagine. But regardless of her sleep schedule I had to be awake in time to pick up Julie’s son and take him to kindergarten, then do errands or laundry or whatever needed to be done in those couple of hours before I had to pick him up again and wait for Julie to get home so I could then go to work. And then come back home and beg and plead with Ali to please please just go to sleep.
That went on for not quite a year before I decided to leave Chicago. My sister back in Virginia had offered to let me live with her, her husband, and their two children while I figured out what I wanted to do. In another “I don’t know if I can” conversation with myself and then with Julie, I didn’t know if I could raise a child in the city. In the end, I didn’t want to. Julie didn’t agree with my decision, and things were a little tense towards the end of my stay in Chicago, but we parted on good terms. And then the Swiss Cheese that is my memory goes blank. I don’t remember if Julie and I kept in touch much in the months following, but in the years following she was pretty much gone.
A decade or so later my daughter’s biological dad died. He had been a distant part of her life, he paid child support, and there were two visits to Chicago to see him that she remembers, and that was about it. I didn’t find out about his death until four months after it happened when, after not getting any reply to emails or phone calls to him about missed child support payments, I called the benefits department of his employer and was told that he was deceased. He was a police officer and I had asked him to make sure that someone knew how to get in touch with me if something were to happen to him, but despite his promise apparently he never got around to it. What he also never got around to was telling me that he had another daughter who was six months younger than mine. The shock over his death was nothing compared to the shock of discovering he had kept that from me all those years. Julie helped me cope with some of the fallout from that. As is my tendency I tried to beat myself up over what I didn’t know and what things that seemed obvious in hindsight I was completely oblivious to at the time.
He had never told his family about me or our daughter, and as the pieces came together I saw that I had been The Other Woman, not in relation to a marriage but certainly to a committed relationship between him and the mother of his youngest child. I can hear Julie now – okay maybe not a “committed relationship”, but certainly a long term public relationship. That woman – and I don’t mean “that woman” in any sort of negative way; I just don’t want to name her here – that woman and their daughter were the only two that his parents and his sister knew about from the beginning. He also had two children older than my daughter that I knew about, but apparently his family didn’t until the children were almost teenagers. When you tell a story like this and truncate it down to its bare essence, so much gets lost. He was a good man, a kind man, a funny man, and a smart man, but he was also a man of secrets.
Years passed and her son graduated college and my daughter started college and Julie was diagnosed with MS. When she first told me I had no idea how debilitating a disease MS is. My then daughter-in-law had been similarly diagnosed but during the infrequent visits with her she seemed just the same. I knew that she was tired a lot, but I didn’t see any obvious indication of the MS so I assumed that Julie was experiencing something along those lines. How wrong I was.
When I went to Chicago to discuss The Project with Julie it was the first time that I had any inclination of what MS was doing to her. We walked around Chicago and she told me some of what life was like for her. She made light of much of it, and told a funny story or two, but I began to realize that it was much more serious than I had previously thought. At the end of the visit she left me for a bit to pick up something at her apartment and I was supposed to wait around the corner for her to return. I got bored and and decided to wait on the corner instead. When I got there I glanced down the road towards her apartment and saw a woman slowly walking towards me, uncertain of her step and looking a little confused. I looked away, and then it registered what I had seen and I turned back. That was Julie.
All day long she had seemed okay. How much had it taken out of her to walk all those blocks with me? Had she been struggling all day both to keep up and to keep up an appearance of … of what? Of what she thought I expected her to be? Or had I not really seen the struggle that had been there all day?
I looked away again and pretended that I hadn’t seen her. When she caught sight of me she called out, and once again I saw the woman I had spent the day with, the woman that I have known for 25 years. I’ve never told her about this, about seeing her when she didn’t know I was looking.
Julie is one of the most amazing, most surprising, most resilient people I know.
What did any of this have to do with laundry? Absolutely nothing. Doing laundry is what happens in the background as you go about your life, whether it is living that life or contemplating your life, your friends, your influences, while sitting on the patio on a hot summer day.