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Only one more fold, one more stroke

I know I’ve let you wait for quite some time since my last blog entry. Now we find ourselves just two weeks shy from the longest and darkest day of the year. December often feels like a time of waiting and anticipation - waiting for family gatherings and good food; waiting for the promises of a New Year; waiting for the winter solstice and the longer days it promises; waiting to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights; waiting for Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ; waiting for snow for those of us in the northern hemisphere to go skiing or marvel in the winter wonderland.

This year we add an entirely new aspect to the notion of waiting - waiting for the end of the pandemic; waiting for new job prospects; waiting for fear to subside; waiting to finally dive into campus life; waiting for environmental action to become reality; waiting for the moment where we can enjoy the warmth and closeness of others without a second thought.

When this kind of waiting feels uncomfortable and brings up much anxiety and pain in me, I can fall prey to distracting myself through work, watching television, mindlessly browsing through social media, eating and the list goes on. Given the responses to the article I posted on my Facebook page on this subject, you may also identify as someone who distracts themselves or overindulges rather than deals creatively with these uncomfortable feelings.

In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells us, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” So, am I making the next Netflix show that pops up on my feed "important" by consuming it half-heartedly? What is it I want to make important in my life right now? What happens when I just invest myself fully in this moment, to the task at hand, regardless of how exhilarating or mundane it might appear?

“Attention is the purest form of generosity,” Simone Weill states. What and whom am I generous with? When? And how does it change my experience of waiting?

My mind is transporting me back about 10 years ago to a scene in my parents’ house. My mother, at the time in her eighties, is well into her journey with Alzheimer’s, having forgotten much of her life and how to handle everyday living. One morning, when it was just the two of us, she became particularly angry and frustrated with me, with her life and her inability to feel useful. In desperation, I blurted out: “Mutti, could you help me with the ironing? You know I don’t really like doing it.” With her grayish eyes piercing right through me, she said in a moment of lucidity: “I do a much better job at it anyway.”

I didn't rebut. Instead, I helped her over to the table that had served as her ironing board for the last fifty years, asked what else she needed, then went upstairs. A half hour later, not having heard her call me once, I peeked through the cast iron rods of the banister––

Slowly, deliberately my mother guides the spewing iron across the patch of blue fleece spread out on the table in front of her. With each movement, the wrinkles soften and disappear into the smoothness of the fabric as the gnarly fingers of her left hand hold onto the edges of the wavy seam. Her eyes and mouth move in perfect synchrony with the firm strokes of her hot iron. Her deep sighs underscore the huffing and puffing of her iron.

The left leg looks perfect now, smooth. She strokes it gently until not even the tiniest wrinkle remains. Tilting her head–crowned with brilliant white wavy hair–ever so slightly to the left, she rests the iron on the pad in the top right corner of the table that’s covered with a thick layer of coarse linen. A small flick with the slender fingers of her left hand sends a minuscule fleck of flattened tissue paper flying into the air. She gives the right leg a shake and turns it over. Her humming softly accompanies the little steam engine that keeps chucking along until the last wrinkle has melted into the smooth fabric. Her right arm extends to return the iron to the resting pad. Her left foot reaches for the power bar on the floor, pushes down on the switch and turns it off. The red light first flickers, then dies.

She slides to the edge of the chair, presses her knuckles firmly into the table. She rocks back and forth three times, each time pumping more air into her lungs–her knuckles have turned white by now. As if to the push of a button, she releases her breath while propelling herself onto her wobbly legs. She takes the blue pants and folds one leg ever so carefully on top of the other. One quick brush with her left hand and she now folds over the seat of the pants, just enough to create a flawlessly straight line from the waist to the seam. With a sweeping motion, her left hand brings the bottom of the legs to just underneath the elastic waist of the pants while her right hand’s stroking ensures utter smoothness. Only one more fold, one more stroke, one final look and with military precision she lifts the pyjama pants onto a stack of equally smooth and flattened undershirts, all the size of a sheet of legal paper, with perfect right angles.

Her left hand reaches down; she yanks a few times at the electric cord of the iron to unplug it. With the last puffs of her iron, her chest deflates. Glancing at the empty basket, she inhales. She peers under the table, white head bent, where her left foot nudges the Rosewood cane. Her weathered hand wraps itself around the shiny palm grip of the cane as she slowly shuffles away from the table.

She looks up at me with a soft smile on her lips as my arms wrap themselves around her waist and stroke her hair. We sit down for a cup of coffee.

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Gentle attention to the beauty and legacy of your mother's life.

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