My Family's Standoff Over Folding The Towels

by Julia Park Tracey
Originally Published: 
Two stacks of multi-colored towels and three towels rolled up
yarosla / Shutterstock

I caught my husband folding the towels the wrong way again. The wrong way means folding them in half lengthwise and then crosswise, and stuffing them into the cabinet. His son, my stepson, folds them that way too. My way, however, is to fold the towel in half crosswise, then again, and bring both sides in to make a trifold—very pretty. Three stacks of towels folded this way will fit into our small cabinet.

Why does he fold the towels that way? Is this some passive-aggressive husband shenanigans to annoy me? Have the males in this household ganged up on me, a patriarchal posse, to mess with my system? Is he forgetful? Does he not remember all the times we discussed this, when I showed him how I like the towels folded and how well they fit into the cabinet? Is he doing this accidentally-on-purpose? Is this early-onset Alzheimer’s? Is it a Men Are From Mars thing?

And what about my stepson? Is this teenage stubbornness and a lack of responsibility? Is this a “you’re not my real mom” thing? Is he trying to make me mad? Is he even listening to me (I mean, any more than he usually listens to me)? Are they in league together?

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this is how the ex-wife used to fold towels. Maybe they’re both longing for a way of life that used to be, but is not now and will never be again. This is my house. This is how I fold towels. After all the drama we’ve been through, the lawyer’s bills, the custody disputes, and the petty spats over lunch boxes, phone chargers and jackets left at the other house, I will not fight in my own house over towels folded her way. I will not.

Earlier this week, I carried the basket of sodden wash from the back porch where the washer lives, to the kitchen, where the dryer fits next to the stove. Don’t ask me why the dryer has to squeeze into the kitchen of this apartment, but that’s where it is. I hoisted the basket and dumped its contents into the open maw of the dryer, scraped cat hair and lint from the screen, set the timer, slammed the door, and pushed the “start” button. Some 30 minutes later the load was finished and the towels were dry, but they lived there for days until we’d depleted the cabinet’s hoard and searched in desperation for a clean towel.

The laundered towels were in the dryer, of course. I hadn’t folded them, and no one else took the initiative. Irritated, perhaps, resigned, definitely, I clawed fluffy terrycloth into the basket, hiked it like a tired toddler on my hip, and carried it to our wide bed. When the towels are warm, nay, hot and fresh from the dryer, my cat Ophelia knows, with the dignity and confidence of a potentate, that these warm towels have been piled there for her. Queen of the Savannah, she sprawls atop them and holds that position until she herself decides to move on. A cold pile of laundry is not quite as much fun.

I don’t mind folding towels. I like the symmetry. I like how they look, stacked in columns in the cabinet like books, and I like that when I pull them from the cabinet they unfold easily, ready to hang over the towel bar with one shake and snap. I prefer folding towels to folding T-shirts or matching athletic socks, to seeing how big our son’s clothes are now and wondering where the time went. Folding towels is easy, mindless, and softer on the heart than folding T-shirts from triathlons my husband may never again run and easier on the ego than what size bras and panties I wear these days. Ophelia watches, sphinxlike, her opinions unspoken.

But there are days when I am too busy to fold towels, and I leave it to my husband while he watches sports or make it a requirement before the boy plays video games. Then, this inability to fold towels the same way I do it, as I have asked them to do it, returns like an annoying neighbor.

I finally asked my husband, an edge of belligerence in my voice, why he folded the towels that way, because I knew he would say that’s how his ex-wife did it. Before he even answered, I was already angry, though tamping it down, pretending it was irrelevant, trying to make a joke where jealousy lay.

“Because that’s how my mother folded them,” he said.

My irrational anger deflated a little. I opened my mouth to say something snarky when he continued.

“To tell you the truth, if I did it my way, I would roll them up.”

In my mind, I saw my mother’s linen cabinet, the towels rolled with their smooth folded end facing outward, all the colors from her 1950s wedding gifts—cocoa brown, tangerine, forest green, sky blue—their nap worn away by years of baths and hair turbans and showers for a family of seven. I had very deliberately never rolled my towels. I wonder, Dr. Freud, why that is?

My husband looked at me, snapping and folding a striped bath towel the way I’d shown him. “But why do you fold the towels that way?” It was a fair question.

I opened my mouth to answer, something like, “I’ve always done it this way,” when I realized that I had not always done any such thing. When I was in college in San Francisco, for about six months a boyfriend lived with me, and he folded the towels in thirds. They fit beautifully into our narrow cabinet in the basement apartment on Joost Street. And why did he fold the towels in thirds?

Because his mother folded them that way.

I was torturing my husband and son over a methodology enshrined by some other family, in some other time. That just wasn’t a good enough reason for the “my way” standoff.

When I explained the long-ago reason for the change, it stopped mattering why we folded them this way or that. I still like how the tri-fold looks, and I still think they fit better into the cabinet, but it’s pretty clear there was never a conspiracy to drive me insane with a campaign of passive-aggressive towel-folding. It’s pretty clear they are plotting to drive me insane some other way—a conspiracy of uneaten leftovers, unrinsed dishes, and a slapdash piling of saucepans in the cupboard seems to be the latest plan.

But the towels? No big deal. We’re good now.

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