Monday, March 9, 2009


I rarely fold a towel and don't think of my summer job many years ago as a chamber maid at the Hilton Inn in Tarrytown, New York. I learned a lot things during that brief stint: not to eat the frozen parfaits they gave us at lunch, how to hide from problem guests and who were the nicest ones, which rooms were the easiest to clean, how to fold a hospital corner and that bellhops would always and forever get the best (sometimes the only) tips. But the most lasting takeaway from that job was an unforgettable lesson on how to fold a towel. There was a very strict aesthetic at the Inn, and each wing had a matron who checked each room after we finished. Many times I went tearfully back to fix some minuscule infraction. In the beginning I was called back regularly to correct the droop of the towels on the bar in the bathrooms. Finally, the most militant of the matrons took me in hand and spent a half hour coaching me in towel-folding. I still mentally repeat her instructions every time I fold towels in my own bathroom: fold the towel in half, bring right and left sides into the center, fold the towel in half again and voila! It is a satisfying nicety that I actually enjoy performing.

Neat folding, I have to admit, has always been somewhat of an obsession for me, going back as far as my infanthood. Family legend (and my own dim memory) has reproduced the story often enough, of how my aunt, at the time a hospital infant ward nurse, tried to teach me how to fold a receiving blanket around my baby doll. She placed the blanket on the floor for me, point north in a diamond formation; placed the doll in the center of the diamond, brought the bottom point up over the doll's feet, folded the east and west points across the doll's body and the top point over the doll's head: a perfect papoose. But not perfect for me. Time and again, apparently, I yanked the blanket off in a fury, doll flying to the other end of the room, because the point of the blanket didn't end up in the exact center of the doll's forehead. Fortunately I got over this fetish by the time I had a real baby of my own.

I am always straightening things. This doesn't mean that my house is tidy - far from it - but certain things IN it are tidy. The forks in the silverware drawer, the handles of my pitcher collection all at the same angle, the arrangement of the photos on my desk, the soft stack of scarves in the coat closet and, of course, the pile of towels in the bathroom.

We often leave off the niceties in this rushing world. I was reminded of this again recently when a dear childhood friend reminisced about my own grandmother having sent this friend a corsage for some long-forgotten occasion when she was a little girl. I found it so poignant that my friend remembered the gift clearly, but not the occasion. Gram was a stickler for such gestures but it was because she enjoyed performing them. I remember lunch parties under the apple tree in her back yard, the card table set out with an embroidered cloth, her good china, and little plates of thin sandwiches with the crusts cut off, pressed glass goblets and a frosty pitcher of lemonade. Perfect.

My mother was a perfect housekeeper even though she had a full time job outside our home. I know that she took pleasure in orderliness and I have tried, fairly unsuccessfully, to emulate her in my own housekeeping. I'm getting better at it. I like, for instance, to iron. I know, I know, but I do like it! I like the smell of the steamy, clean clothes, the glide of the iron over the surface of the garment as it presses out the wrinkles and the quiet rhythm of the work. I wouldn't want to do it for a living, but it's not a terrible way to spend an hour on a gray afternoon.

One of my friends once asked me when I was between jobs what I enjoyed most about being free all day. I astonished myself by saying that, aside from being able to spend more time with my daughter, I loved being able to finish a load of laundry from beginning to end: wash, hang out on the line to dry, fold and put away, without feeling like it was just one more task I had to rush through. And I think she astonished herself by saying, "I know what you mean!"

I think we all, on some level, long for the time to be able to do things the right way - a little stab at bringing order to our world.