It haunts me with unrelenting persistence, this pursuit of laundry perfection.
My laundry list: Niko’s mud-stained, grass-stained, who-knows-what-else-stained jeans and shirts emerge from the washing machine victorious, pristine. Sofia’s grubby-kneed pants and sticky sleeves are as new when the laundry is done. Unspeakably soiled diapers? Pure as the Snow Queen’s gleaming white hair. And then come Aaron’s work shirts. They’re nearly perfect when they go into the washing machine, really. He’s a tidy, order-loving person who never spills food or smudges ink. But the collars, of course, after being worn all day in the heat of a California drought (he travels often for work), are – forgive me, Aaron – not quite as flawless as they could be. And, since moving to Oregon, when they come out of the wash, they remain not quite flawless.
Back in Anchorage, I would spritz the collars with laundry stain remover, toss them into the washer on the delicate cycle, and pull them out again, spotless. It was one of my few areas of housekeeping pride. Dishes may have been unwashed, floor may have had a bit of dust, laundry remained unfolded for days, but by golly, those shirts were clean. Every time. I would hold one up, note the gleaming white collar, and feel a warm glow of pride. Did it again! That is one clean shirt!
In Oregon, the laundry routine has been the same, and the washing machine is an updated version of the same model. But the shirts no longer have the incandescent whiteness of a beautifully laundered shirt. And my pride has suffered as a result. Oh, how it’s suffered.
When this began, I turned, naturally, to Google, and discovered that hard water can lessen the effectiveness of laundry detergent. Borax, I read, can soften the water and get clothes cleaner. Naturally I rushed to Target and bought a monster box of the stuff. I started shaking some into each load. It helped, but not enough. Aaron’s shirt collars were still notable for their imperfection. But I was out of energy. I was pregnant with Sofia, growing more uncomfortable every day, and miserable in the unfamiliar summer heat reaching past the 90s and into three-digit temperatures. Grudgingly, I settled for almost good enough. But it still disturbed me.
I know, of course, why this bothers me so much. This one area of housekeeping success has been my token of the Virtuous Woman.
I remember joining the other teenaged girls in a chorus as we recited Proverbs 31, demonstrating our willingness to embrace virtue as well as our skill at memorization: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil…Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land…She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” We were relaxing in our Sunday School teacher’s living room on a Sunday morning, preparing to read from our slim navy hardcover book — Beautiful Girlhood, it was called — about staying modest, wearing hose at all times, being sure our knees (better yet, ankles) were covered, and — above all — being sure that, should our vanity lead us to wear makeup, we be sure to remove it each night, lest unsightly leftover makeup mark us as undesirable.
We didn’t take most of it too seriously — while we lived in a Christian commune, our style was as modern as budget and the knee-and-cleavage-covering dress code allowed. After the requisite reading from the book each Sunday, the rest of our 45-minute pre-church session was mostly spent giggling and chattering, mostly about the old-fashioned suggestions in our book. But the virtue part — that stuck, for me, anyway. We heard it in so many ways as we grew up. None of us doubted that we’d someday have a husband. Each of us firmly believed we’d be an excellent wife. Hadn’t we been cooking for scores of people at each meal since we were old enough to reach the counter with a stepstool? Didn’t we take frequent sewing classes? Spend untold hours each summer gardening, harvesting, canning? Yes, we would be the epitome of Virtuous Women.
Of the girls in that group, only one remains on the commune. Our beliefs have evolved — even the beliefs of the one who’s still there, though her beliefs probably look a little more commune-traditional than mine. We no longer feel anxious if our knees are revealed; we know our virtue isn’t dependent on marriage. And yet, for me at least, the need to prove my womanliness remains.
If this were an inspirational novel or memoir, I’d have had an epiphany accompanying my realization of the source of my obsession with those shirt collars. I’d have realized that an obsession rooted in an over-religious upbringing might not be what I need for a guiding life principal. But I just can’t let those shirt collars go. How can my husband be praised in the gates, if his shirt collars are grimy?
Now that Sofia is nearly a year old and has fewer tummy troubles, thus being less needy and giving me a bit more time for frivolous obsessions, the urge to assert my status as a Woman of Virtue is rising again. Over the last month or so, I’ve tried a couple of solutions. One week, I tried making a mixture of borax, Spray & Wash, and a bit of water to combine them, and I spread the paste over the collars. It actually left the shirts less white than before. Not the desired outcome.
The next week, I sprayed the collars with stain remover first, then spread the same paste over the damp cloth. Victory! Well, almost. I could still see the shadows of stains, but it was so much better than it had been that I decided cleanliness had been satisfactorily attained. All I needed to do was to write a post and hit “publish”, and I would officially be a Virtuous Woman again. I wasn’t entirely pleased, but it was… well, it was close enough, right?
Then, Aaron’s aunt and uncle came by for an overnight visit. Over dinner, I happened to mention my search for the perfect stain remover. “You need Nicole’s recipe,” our aunt said. “It’s like magic. It will get absolutely anything out. She used it to get three-year-old paint stains out of a jacket.” And, because she could see how excited I was over this magical concoction, she texted her daughter Nicole, who promptly texted back with the recipe.
I can’t even tell you how ridiculously thrilled I am about this new stain remover. In my next post, I’ll give the recipe and tell how effective it is. (Spoiler: It’s VERY effective.)