I still have the laundry bag Sister Andrew made by hand. "Cute Andy," we used to say. I'd find her asleep in the common room each day after school, slumped in the same pink velveteen armchair, beak to bosom like a somnolent hen. She was eighty, long retired and a self-proclaimed narcoleptic. Nevertheless, she'd stir, gather the newspaper draping her lap and hoist herself vertical, her yellowed habit hanging like a tent. "I grew up in San Francisco," she'd say. "Born and raised." We'd share the same old chat, and then she'd shuffle her swollen legs toward her first-floor bedroom. In another year, she’d leave our convent in Napa for the infirmary in San Rafael. The laundry bag she left behind I claimed for my own.
It was what you'd call a lingerie bag, an envelope of sieve-like fabric meant to preserve delicate garments against the surge of machine agitation. Not that 'delicate' would ever describe the utilitarian ethos of my convent underwear. I used the bag for the stockings I wore with my habit, treating them like luxuries, even if they came from Longs Drugs, packaged in plastic eggs. And for sweaters, the cost of dry cleaning beyond the reach of a young nun's monthly allowance.
Our laundry room reflected the days when sisters filled a convent's every room. We were a house of only twelve but laundered in a vast room painted asylum green with an industrial-sized wringer straight from Stephen King. An entire wall supported cubbies housing cleaning tools and humble textiles requiring care: Fels Naphtha Soap and bluing, a pillowcase to mend, refectory napkins with stains to bleach. There were the standard washer and dryer, a hopper sink, a long table down the center and foldable wooden drying racks. The ironing board folded from a cabinet in the wall. I loved ironing my habit, savoring the smell of vaporized starch rising to Heaven like incense.
We believed our white habit signified joy, if not ease of maintenance. Once I sat in a student desk where ink had pooled, later grinding a wet bar of Fels Naphtha like a pestle into the stain. The stain disappeared, leaving a patch of translucent fabric the span of my hand. It was the made-to-order habit from Fitzgerald’s back East my parents bought me. Not the one I wore to my First Vows ceremony, when Father David blessed my scapular, that separate swath of fabric draping from my shoulders, front and behind. I held it out in front of me like Juan Diego’s tilma, minus the roses:
“Make the one who wears it worthy to be clothed in You.”
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I left after fifteen years. It was decades before I wore white, again. Even the dress I married in—bias-cut silk eyelet, thin shoulder straps—was ivory, not white.
* * *
Sister Andrew built that bag for bear: stiff white netting whip-stitched by hand on three sides, a margin of finer mesh fabric at the top bordering a sturdy metal zipper. I still use it. You might say that bag has held the history of my life in lingerie, as I evolved from a nun to a single woman to a wife.
The zipper's slider does retract several inches while in use. Now I thread a safety pin through the opening on the pull and secure the bag shut before tossing it into the wash. Afterward, I hang or lay flat my delicate garments, and pin the bag to dry from a wire shelf in our laundry room.
Later, I place it on the rack above the washing machine, folded with reverence, like a pall.
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