It was 4:00 a.m. and I was the only patron in one of the most broken-down laundromats in the Commonwealth of Virginia. My sister Sarah, after decades of turmoil and tumult, had died the day before—a combination of pain and painkillers.
Earlier in the evening, my family had converged on Sarah’s condo to begin sorting through her things. We siblings were drawn to objects with obvious sentimental value—her teacup collection, her favorite, well-worn denim jacket. For some reason, I was attracted to her bedspread. It was at least five inches thick and had a swirling motif, with moss and pea-green colors conspiring to make the whole thing look even more hideous.
I’d hated Sarah for the first 15 years of my life. Part of that could be explained by the dynamics in large families, at least ours. Among the six kids in our family, our identity was determined by whether we were a “big” or a “little.” As the oldest child and a girl, my role was clearly prescribed: I was the boss, the leader, the junior mother, with all the privileges, praise, and often-resented responsibilities that went with it. Sarah, who came right behind me, always resisted my big-sister status, which I lorded over her whenever I could. Given our opposing personalities, the fact that we were forced to share a bedroom only added further strain to our fractured coexistence as children. The only thing we agreed on was that our mother must have found the dreadful-looking brown brocade spreads we kept draped over our respective antique beds from a garage sale given by a family completely lacking in taste.
Somehow, my sister and I must’ve carried a proclivity for unappealing bed covers into adulthood, because that night, of all the possessions I could’ve claimed, I chose her monstrously bulky comforter to bring home with me. My two brothers had to help me drag it off the bed, roll it up, and try unsuccessfully to stuff it into the trunk of my car. Unconstrained by any trace of sentimental attachment, my husband proclaimed it “too big, too heavy, and too damn ugly.” But finally, to placate my grief, he bypassed the full trunk and managed to wrestle the comforter into the back seat, cursing and hyperventilating the whole time.
Two minutes into the drive, the crumpled-up comforter began to creep over the front seat, onto my husband’s head. His patience exhausted, he pulled over and demanded that I take control of the situation. So I jumped into the back seat, laying my body over the comforter, and we were off again. Not long after, as I started to wheeze uncontrollably, I began to wonder if a bedspread could kill a person. Searching furiously for my inhaler, I remembered my sister’s five beloved cats, who’d shared her bed during the nights and staved off the crushing sorrow of her days. Hearing my raspy breathing, my husband insisted that we kick the comforter to the curb. I refused. So we compromised, abandoning it in the car when we finally got it home.
But as my husband fell into a welcomed sleep, I found myself too wired to do anything but cry so hard my ribs hurt. Looking for a distraction, despite the late hour, I decided to give the spread the big-time cleaning it obviously needed. Although household matters have never been my forte, I knew an everyday detergent wouldn’t be enough. So I concocted a special potion from literally everything under the kitchen sink: dishwashing liquid, lemony furniture polish, ammonia, baking soda, vinegar, copper cleaner—the works. Even though it smelled worse than the comforter, I hoped it would perform some magical alchemy. Next, I searched our house for every quarter I could find, and drove across town to the only laundromat that was open.
With the exception of its name and a sign over the jumbo dryer that read “Use caution with animals and small children,” Spanish was the exclusive language of the 18-Minute Laundry. Virtually no one was inside, but the place sounded deafening. Two TVs, tuned into two different soap operas, competed with each other, both blasting fights between two women and an unfaithful man—all ready to tear each other apart. A talk-radio show blared from somewhere near the back of the room. Piñatas and little girls’ pastel dresses hung from the ceiling. The counter spilled over with lottery tickets and soft drinks for sale.
Using all my strength, I dragged the bedspread to the biggest washer I could find and poured in my potion, the smell of which almost rendered me unconscious. Then I deposited about 100 quarters, turned it on, and hoped for the best. It was a front loader, so I could monitor its progress from a splintery aqua bench that looked as if it had been stolen from a park. Watching the gentle swish-swish rhythm of the spread in the water calmed some of the cacophony inside and around me. But just as I’d started to settle in, I noticed foam slowly seeping out of the machine’s window and door. Soon it began to drip onto the floor. And before long, a full-fledged flood had begun.
As memories of volcanos from messy elementary school science projects flashed before my eyes, I realized I’d been ill-advised to add both baking soda and vinegar to my potion. The manager flew at me with a mop from behind the counter. I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand that she wanted to kill me. She mopped and yelled like a wild woman as I stood there frozen, not knowing what to do as she screamed, shook her head furiously, and eventually grabbed another handful of quarters to begin the cycle again, this time, fortunately, without my potion.
When it finally looked like things were going to turn out okay, I burst out crying—not the polite, dab-at-the-corner-of-the eyes kind of crying, but the snot-running, Kleenex-soaking, hiccupping kind. Seeing this, the manager retreated to the back room and left it to the gentle churning of the washer to soothe me. After a while, it worked, and I started to think about how Sarah and I, with all our opposite personalities, had always been a little like baking soda and vinegar ourselves.
Every night of my childhood, I’d throw off my clothes, don crumpled pajamas, and take a running leap onto my bed, where I’d thrash all night in my usual fitful way. Sarah, in contrast, would change carefully into her St. Jerome’s school uniform, rather than pajamas. She’d smooth down the shirt, slip under the covers like a letter in an envelope, and sleep through the night in perfect stillness. The next morning, as I’d rifle and sniff my way through piles of dirty, wrinkled clothes, Sarah would emerge from her bed perfectly composed and completely ready for the day, flashing me a superior sneer as she’d make her way to breakfast. I’d begin every school day wanting to kill her, though a big part of me realized how much I envied her.
As regularly happens with siblings, we began to inhabit different spirals in the larger world outside our family, which gradually transformed our rivalry into a détente of sorts. Even though we still didn’t like each other, we didn’t hate each other either. We were more like pains in each other’s asses: pains we learned to live with, and at times, grudgingly came to appreciate as we forged our own early paths in life. After all, I thought, as I watched the huge mass of the wet comforter shake the washer back and forth in the final spin cycle, sometimes you have to bump against someone else to learn a bit about who you are. Sarah and I did a lot of bumping, but managed to forge an oddly intimate alliance over the years, as only true rivals can.
It took two guys to help me drag the comforter, now cleansed of cat hair, across the room to the dryer. And in the two hours it took to dry, I thought about how the hardships of our 20s and 30s—health disasters, failed relationships, lost pregnancies, depression—had cemented our relationship from one of nonstop competitors to true sisterhood. A hard-won empathy was the byproduct of the deep current of pain that ran through our respective lives. Fortunately, a sense of dark humor infused our bond and made our hard times more bearable for both of us. As radically different as we were, as we aged, we gradually grew into each other. And then she died.
It took half an hour and a great deal of cursing to get the cumbersome, unmanageable thing that had suddenly come to matter so much to me from my car into the house. By the time I reached my bedroom, I was breathless and flung it across the mattress. I collapsed face first into it. It was then that I realized that it would always be too big, too heavy, and too damn ugly, but that it would also be okay, because it would anchor me with its bulk, and it would comfort me with memories of my sister’s love. How it looked in the light didn’t matter—because in my darkest nights, my sister would be my comforter.
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer, clinical psychologist, and former professor of psychology at George Mason University. She’s the author of Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface and other books. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post.
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