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A Special Heaven-Sent Laundromat Gathering

She found the secret ingredient that made Thanksgiving special despite the unusual circumstances.

An illustration of angels in the washing machine; Illustration by Kim Johnson

Wash. Rinse. Spin. That’s what was on my menu early in the morning one Thanksgiving a few years back. With no kids of my own, and my siblings out of town with their families, it was just any other Thursday for me. “Might as well have clean clothes,” I muttered, walking into the laundromat. High up on the wall, where the television was mounted, a newscaster reported on the already clogged traffic conditions.

I headed to a pair of unoccupied machines, passing a few other unlucky people. I didn’t see any of the usuals. Sometimes I chatted with a new mother whose baby napped in a plastic laundry basket while her onesies were washed. She was probably sitting around a big table right now, her baby smooshing peas in a high chair. I glanced at a man in a grubby T-shirt that read “How can I ignore you today?”

I separated my colors and whites. Lord, what would my grandmother think if she saw me here today? When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant turkey baked to golden-brown perfection served on Mamaw’s best tablecloth. Mashed potatoes. Creamed corn. Green beans she’d put up in Mason jars. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream. The food was delicious, but the secret ingredient was togetherness. That’s what made Thanksgiving special.

Beside me, a mother loaded a dryer with sheets and blankets. Her kids ran around behind her. I counted six of them in all. They reminded me of the family in that old TV show, The Waltons. The series was a spinoff of a classic television special called The Homecoming, which still sometimes aired. I’d watched the premier with Mamaw one Thanksgiving when I was ill. I’d kept to myself most of the day, but when Mamaw sat with me to watch A Walton’s Family Reunion, I got that same warm, fuzzy feeling being amidst my own family gave me. We were long past the era of the Waltons, with families often spread far and wide at too far a distance to come together at Thanksgiving.

While I transferred my clothes from the washing machine to the dryer, the six kids peppered their mom with questions. “Can we go to a movie when we get there?” The mom sighed wearily and addressed them all together. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times. There’s just enough money to get us to Grandma’s. No movies. No ice cream. And,” she added for the child whose nose was pressed against the glass of a claw machine, “no new toys.”

I turned back to my dryer. I’d thought spending the day with other lonely people in a near-empty laundromat would be sad. Spending it with people on their way to somewhere special was worse. The youngest child sidled up beside me to watch his blankie go round and round in the dryer window next to mine. A scraping noise made us both turn around. His brothers were pulling chairs across the floor, setting up rows facing the TV. One of the sisters tore a magazine page into squares. “This ticket is for you,” she said to me, and motioned to a chair. Before I knew what I was doing, I was seated in the front row looking up at a toothpaste commercial. The kids took their places around me.

“Shh!” the littlest boy said. “The movie is starting.”

I glanced over at my dryer, wondering how long this “movie” would take. A familiar strain of music caught my attention. It took me a moment to place it. The theme to The Waltons! The kids probably had no idea what they were watching, but the theme song slowly drew the other customers in.

“I just remembered, I’ve got candy in my pickup!” a man said, jumping up. “I’ll go grab it.” Not to be outdone, a lady hauled in a cooler of soft drinks from her car. “They’ll have plenty at the grandkids’ house,” she said. The man in the grubby T-shirt held the door for her. He wasn’t ignoring anyone anymore. When my laundry was done, he brought me over a favorite paisley sock that I’d dropped on the way from the dryer back to my movie seat. I watched as I folded my still-warm clothes, feeling thankful. There was no other word for it.

Without turkey or homemade pumpkin pie, our little group had found the secret ingredient that made Thanksgiving special. In the oddest of circumstances, we’d gathered together.

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