A conversation in a laundry room. A curved red laundry basket sitting on the washer between us, full of one man's week's worth of laundry. Jeans. Shirts. Underwear. Socks. Two thin grayish towels. All to be thrown in together. Washed together. Dried together.
The towels bother me. Remind me of childhood towels I vowed never to be subject to again. I'm thrown that this man of all people is using these towels.
"Do you need towels?"
My tone is friendly, neutral - I hope. I'm trying not to sound big-sisterly or pushy or critical.
"No, I have new ones in my car. But these are perfectly good. No sense in getting the new ones out while these still work."
I think about this man's life before. The one in which he could take daily fresh towels for granted. I think about his life now. The one in which he can't quite yet allow himself the luxury of thick, bright new towels - let alone fresh towels daily.
The towels I've provided him for this visit are new, white and fluffy. They came from our mother's things. I didn't want them, but couldn't resist the snowy folds and inviting plushness. Glad to have new towels that would be used only for company. My habit as a host has been to provide one set of clean towels (bath, hand and washcloth) and the expectation that they would be used for the entire visit.
It's what I do with my own towels. One clean set a week. Washed every Saturday along with my sheets. Hung out to dry on my clothesline when the weather allows. Replaced as soon as the selvage begins to fray. My version of responsible luxury.
I feel rich stepping out of the shower into the purple folds of the biggest, lushest towels I can buy at Sears. I love burying my face in the sun-soaked loops of terry which in turn gently wick away the drops of water clinging there. These enfolding cotton wings help keep at bay the memories of thin gray towels that barely soaked enough moisture to dry an eight-year-old body. Limp pieces of mildew-smelling cloth that were shared among four kids and washed only when a trip to the laundromat allowed.
I wonder if this man standing next to me needed daily fresh towels for the same reason I need new towels. I don't ask. I do hate that at this point in his life he lives with the same towels from the childhood that cost us both so much.
Somewhere in the middle of this conversation, I become aware of how small and controlling my generosity has been. The small luxury of daily fresh towels is a simple easy gift to give. The absence of judgement and expectation, a much larger and more difficult gift to release.
I want to drape this man in clean, new layers of absorbent Egyptian cotton. Towels that will absorb the losses that have brought him to this point. Towels that will cushion him from a world that will not see the man I see, but will only see his labels. I want to be a person who can love him - who can love period - with a heart that can give freely. Whether it's giving towels or time or trust.