I stalk denim and I know why.
In the early 1980s, nothing was more fashionable in my small town than Levis 501s paired with Chippewa boots and a powder jacket. My elementary school was overrun by kids with parents who thought it totally awesome to outfit growing children in expensive leather work boots and expensive jeans topped with expensive ski jackets. My parents didn’t. Perhaps they could have if my dad didn’t drink the clothing money.
Instead of Chippewas, I wore knock-off nods to Adidas shoes from Kmart. They were blue with four yellow stripes. Adidas had three stripes, so the only people fooled by my shoes were younger than five. Instead of a powder jacket, I wore a coat from the nice thrift store, one step up from the Salvation Army.
One day, after school, my mom told me to go look on my bed. I knew she bought something for me because she always put things she bought for us on our beds but couldn’t wait for us to find them on our own. I ran to my room. There, folded, was a pair of Levis with the telltale swooping-arc pocket design. I grabbed them and looked at the brown rectangle tag sewn on the right side of the back waistband to read the most important number I’d ever read: 501.
It wasn’t 501. It was some other 5__ number I can’t remember. I unfurled them. No button fly! It was a zipper and it got worse. Rather than being straight-legged, they were bootcut. My mom stood in the doorway, grinning. “I found them at the army surplus store!” I managed to thank her. For the rest of the night, I tried to convince myself no one at school would notice they weren’t 501s. They would see my back pockets. My shirt would hide the brown tag. Nobody would look at my fly, would they? It would be okay. I had 1/3 of the uniform.
I wore them to school the next day. Everything seemed fine until lunch. We were in line in the cafeteria. One of the girls with 3/3 of the uniform sneered, “Why do your Levis do that?” She pointed at the flared legs above my Adidon’ts. I froze.
This was the early 80s. Anything remotely 1970s was disgusting. Disco? Grody. Flat hair? Grody. Bellbottoms? Grody to the max. I knew my bootcut jeans looked awfully bell-bottomy and I felt deep shame. My 1/3 became 0/3 in an instant.
Every morning, my mom expected me to wear my Levis 5-Oh-Loser jeans and I did because they were pretty much the only pair of pants that fit. I wore them and wore them and wore them and she never, ever washed them. Not only did I wear the wrong jeans, they were filthy and had their own ecosystem. Years later, we were reminiscing about childhood hijinks and she mentioned, “I couldn’t get those jeans off you! They were so dirty but I knew if I washed them, you wouldn’t be able to wear them to school and you wouldn’t have stood for that!”
Oh, mom. I wished you not only washed those jeans, but burned them in our wood burning stove dad installed to save money on heating.
I told her she could have taken them after I put on my pajamas, washed and dried them, and then I could have worn them the next day. To me, this was obvious. Why hadn’t she? I silently wondered.
“Is that pizza sauce?’ I point at my son’s jeans and scowl. He shrugs. ‘Don’t you care? My God, it’s not okay to go out looking like that!” I command him to march back to his dresser and chose clean pants.
Why hadn’t she?
Perhaps Dynasty was on? What about weekends? I know she did laundry because my sister and I were assigned to hang wet clothes on the laundry line outside. Why didn’t she wash my jeans?
It’s odd and unsettling I still ask myself this question. But I see myself as a child wearing armor-stiff self-ambulatory denim coated in bacteria and I am alarmed. Outwardly, it looked like nobody cared for me but I know the truth.
She loved me and loves me fiercely. Being married to an alcoholic must have been crushingly painful. It was brutally hard for me as a child. To be married to an addict? The loneliest road I can fathom. Many times, I asked why she didn’t care and now I see her deep hurt. She’d say she always prayed about it and trusted God to deliver my dad from alcohol. He did, but not in my timing—or hers.
Of course she wanted to give me the best and she tried. But at the end of the day, when I had stripped off the jeans and the bacteria conspired on my bedroom floor, the last thing on her mind was more work. She already did everything. I was too self-involved for it to occur to me to do it on my own without prompting. They festered. I did, too. My mom waited and in that waiting, she revealed a true servant’s heart.
I gather laundry daily. I love the smell of detergent. I love pre-treating stains. I love finding dryer sheets with delightful scents. I buy those beads to add to the wash. I love folding everything straight out of a warm dryer to minimize wrinkles. I love sorting everything into piles to put away. I have delayed teaching my kids how to do laundry because I truly like to do it. They can have at the toilets and floors. Give me humming machines that keep everyone looking sharp.
This is simply a form of control.
I can rinse away almost everything but pen marks and mustard. If my kids load a pen with mustard, I will be thoroughly defeated. But I can’t wash away the worst of my worst. Thank God I am only able to keep the outside clean. My soul groans and worry quakes me awake. My mother taught me to lay it all out before Jesus and wait even though I was furious when she did just that. While my pants were filthy, it was no match for my heart and still isn’t. I need the cleaning only Jesus can provide. I leave my heart on the floor. It’s so rumpled. It’s stained. There is mustard but he doesn’t roll his eyes and mutter. Here he comes to pick it up, shake it out, and wash it clean.