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Stranded in Arkansas

My family lived in Arkansas briefly in the early 70's. My mother tells a story about being in a laundromat and sitting me down to play with another toddler who was black. Laundromat stories are set in linoleum with sounds of machines beating in bell bottom tempos, heat blowing through fans stuttering on the left return, coke machines, and smells of soap and mildew.

There aren't a lot of details in my mother's story. You wait, you swap, you fold, maybe sip on a Big Red and thumb through a magazine with the recipes torn out. I started to cry - could have been hunger, the heat. The owner of the laundromat came to the scene and decided that my playmate was the culprit and immediately asked her mother to take her things and leave the facility. There had to have been an exchange, words about rights, wet laundry, something. I was silenced by my mother's attention as onlookers examined me, revealing nothing.

My body tightens when I think of how that mother grabbed the accused, her child, locking her into place on a hip with one arm. How she stopped the symphony of machines that choked up water-logged clothes, still soaked in a week's worth of labor and stains, dragging the unfinished to the finished, shoving it all into a basket that would have to fit under the other arm - all while calculating the quarters spent to end up with the same dirty laundry.

In the moment when wash and play was disrupted by the deafening silence of shame, ordinary people doing laundry got trapped in a slow motion tragedy. My mom's brief story isn't from a lack of memory, it's because the details are stranded in Arkansas, at that laundromat, swallowed in that instant, with all the quarters, by a metal tongue. She too had picked up the accused, her child, locking me into place on a hip with one arm. She stopped the symphony of machines, releasing our water-logged clothes, soaked in our stains. She dragged the unfinished to the finished and shoved it into a basket that would have to fit under her other arm. She calculated the same quarters spent. They left together.

I don't have memories of that day, but it is woven into my soul. My mother's radical response to life in all circumstances taught me how to live. How to love others. This isn't a story about saints and do-gooders, my mother and I have weathered much conflict. This story is about the seeds that are planted in the beginning. Do we know what grew within us? What now grows because of us.


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