In early spring 2020, just as the country began to shut down, my husband and I moved in with his parents. We had had to close our wine importing business and found ourselves in a precarious financial situation. We also wanted to help my in-laws navigate this new pandemic world; both of them are over 70, and my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. So the four of us hunkered down and learned how to live together: We gardened together, we cooked together (our favorite Thai dishes, their favorite Southern comfort favorites), we watched old Westerns and introduced them to Melissa McCarthy comedies, and we did way too much day drinking. For a little while, it was almost like a vacation.
As time went on, though, we realized that this new living arrangement required a lot of adjustment and sacrifice. One area where this quickly became apparent was in doing the laundry. This will be familiar for anyone who has ever had a loved one with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s: Doing laundry was one of the routines that helped my mother-in-law make sense of the chaos of those early COVID days. It was familiar, she didn’t need help to do it, and she could provide for her family. Great, right? Well, sort of. I quickly learned that I would need to go hunting for shirts and pants that made it into the wrong basket or closet; return underwear that really belonged to my father-in-law, not me (although that wasn’t as awkward as finding my own jockstraps nicely folded for me by my mother-in-law); and schedule sneaky, late-night laundry sessions for the items that I really cared about and didn’t want to disappear.
Nowhere were these laundry stumbling blocks more evident than with socks. Because if you’ve ever done a washing and drying load in your life, you know that, if Murphy’s Law were specific to laundry, it would go something like, “Any sock that can go missing, will go missing.” And in our family’s case, no matter how hard we tried, we quickly ended up with bags of unmatched socks. Yes, bags. Dozens and dozens of unmatched socks collected in shopping bags and totes. I would order new sets of socks and cross my fingers that they would stay matched for at least a week, but in this house, we wash new clothes before wearing them, so, you guessed it: Some of these brand-new sock pairs never even survived long enough to make it onto feet.
In a world that felt like it was devolving into chaos, it would have been easy to accept my sock dilemma as one more setback in an absolutely garbage year, just another punch in the gut, #pandemiclife.
Instead, I became determined to make something positive out of the situation. Each week or so, I’d take those mounds of sad singles, dump them onto my bed, put on some music, and get to matching. Or I’d drag the bag to the couch and turn on Netflix before settling into a sock session. I began ritualizing the sorting of the socks, turning it into a meditative, mindful moment. It was a solitary endeavor, one that didn’t require anyone else’s help and forced me to slow down and focus on this one task for however long it took. It was my time — just me and the socks!
I developed a routine. First, I sorted all socks into piles based on color: white socks here, black and gray socks over there, patterned socks in the middle. Then, I’d methodically go through each pile, laying out the socks in front of me so I could have eyes on all of them, training myself to remember shapes and sizes and patterns as I referred to each sock one by one. It was easy to pair up the pink socks with the little green cactuses that my husband loves; the subtly striped ones proved a bit more difficult. The many black ankle socks that were close in size but not exact matches usually just got coupled up regardless; I only had so much patience.
Sometimes I’d end up surrounded by socks — socks draped over my legs and onto the pillows, or lined up in a row all along the back of the couch. I’d have to shoo away the dogs when they tried to join me and turn down offers of help from my husband or mother-in-law. I had a system! Don’t mess with my system!
To the casual observer, it would have looked nonsensical; to me, it made so much more sense than almost anything else going on around me. These were moments when I could sit by myself and create some order out of the fear of the pandemic, the pain of living with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, the uncertainty of even day-to-day life.
Occasionally I’d be able to put together a pile of properly paired socks, a huge victory. I’d gather up all of them in my arms and go show my husband, proud as a second-grader who just built his first diorama. Very often, though, I’d only manage to match a few of the socks. It could be frustrating, especially if it was one of those pandemic days filled with terrifying, continuous breaking news tweets, almost as though my own socks were conspiring with the universe to stress me out. (I found out nearly six months into our stay that my mother-in-law also had a bag of unmatched socks stashed away in her bedroom. Finding that bag was like Christmas morning!)
But regardless of whether I ended up with two pairs or dozens, my pile of matched socks, no matter how small, served as my win for that day. I hadn’t let Murphy’s Law of Laundry defeat me. Sure, I was destined to deal with another round of missing socks in the coming days. And I would surely encounter more anxiety-inducing tweets, calls from bill collectors, worries about what to do next professionally. But I had my routine. I had my practice. And for an hour or so each week, it felt like everything was going to work out in the end.