Katherine Shkreli received her MFA from Manhattanville College in the Spring of 2018 where she remains acting Editor-in-Chief of The Manhattanville Review. Her nonfiction delves into themes of Albanian heritage, adapting to social differences as a first-generation American daughter of immigrants, and overcoming cultural divides.
“Why don’t you stop sitting on the table and help me?” My mother asks as she folds her beige sheets with perfect lines. The sheets are so perfectly folded they looked like they could have come from the store. I don’t understand how she’s so perfect. And she is perfect. The perfect daughter, daughter-in-law, wife and mother an Albanian family could ask for.
“I will never be able to fold sheets like that,” I say the same thing every time she asks me to help.
“What are you going to do when you get married?” My mother asks.
“Wash, dry and put them right back onto the bed.”
My mother gives me the same look every time I give her this answer. She whips her face up at me, eyes wide and thin lips pressed tightly. She shakes her head with disapproval and looks the other way.
“Are you going to live with your in-laws when you get married,” she asks over the boiler behind her, parallel to the washer and dryer. So, basically, her voice is hitting its high-pitched tone to out yell the boiler. It’s one of the major reasons why I hate being in the basement. I always feel like someone is creeping between all the copper pipes we use to hang our clothes to dry. There’s no one ever there, but I always feel like one of my brothers or Baba is listening to our conversations.
The basement has always been the place where my mom and I speak about my life, which isn’t very juicy being the only girl and youngest child after three boys of an Albanian family. So, we speak about my crushes, who I always believe will be my ticket out. My ticket to the outside world my mom never experienced being locked in as a daughter then a wife. Though, it would be the same for me. I would be a daughter then a wife. My ticket out.
“No, I will most definitely not live with my in-laws when I get married,” I said.
“What if your husband wants you to live with them?”
“I’m not going to be involved with someone who wants that. I can’t live the way you did.”
“What does that mean?” She now puts Baba’s light-green sheets from the washer into the dryer.
Wrinkle shield: on.
“This is what I mean. You’re doing Baba’s sheets. I don’t want to do anyone’s sheets, but mine,” I say as I continue sitting on the wooden table across from the table she puts our folded clothes on.
“Well, you’ll have to,” she says.
“No, I won’t because I won’t marry an Albanian.”
“What’s wrong with marrying an Albanian?”
“Because if, or when I break their heart, an Albanian boy will lie about me, saying I did things I never did,” I say.
On the table, besides her perfectly folded sheets, are a pile of clothes I should help her fold. She takes a pair of jeans and pinches each leg by the seam, folding it so when my brothers, dad, or myself, unfold them the seams aren’t wrinkled — perfect as always. Finally, I grab a pair to help her, like she originally asked. I pinch the waist and fold it in half ignoring the seams. She shakes her head and says, “You’re folding them wrong.”
“There’s no wrong way to fold, mommy.”
“Yes, there is,” she says.
“No, there isn’t. Just because Nana forced you to fold her way doesn’t mean it’s the right way,” I say. When my mother married my father in 1982, her grandmother told her the night of her wedding to do whatever the in-laws ask of her and to not speak back. So, my mother being the new nusë in the house was told to do laundry by Nana, her mother-in-law. And she wasn’t told to do only her and her husband’s laundry, but also her husband’s parents, brothers, and brother’s wives because they worked, and my mother was a housewife. She didn’t fight Nana. She didn’t question, or comment where I would have. I would have told Nana, “No, I’m sorry, but they can do their own laundry.”
One day when my mother was folding towels, Nana yelled at her with a cigarette burning between her lips, “Cfarë dreqin është kjo?”
“What do you mean, Nan?” My mother had asked.
“You don’t fold towels in half and then half again,” Nana said, but in Albanian, of course.
Fold from the top: 1/3 way down.
Fold again: remaining 1/3.
Fold again: in 1/2.
To this day, my mother has me folding it Nana’s way. I still do it wrong.
“Can I tell you about this boy, Mom?” I ask.
“Another one?” She asks with her eyebrows furrowing her forehead. “Remember when you used to stay home and help?”
“When I didn’t have a life, you mean?” I ask.
“You have more of a life than I ever did at your age,” she says with that tone she uses to prove you’re wrong. My mother has only ever been with one man — my father. She was arranged to marry him at 17, married at 18 and then had my oldest brother, George at 19. She was made to be a mom. That’s what she wanted to be her whole life. She wanted to get married, be in love, and have children. Well, not only did her family arrange her to marry a man she so happened to fall in love with at first sight, but she had three boys by the time she was 27, then me at 30. Every time she was pregnant, she prayed for it to be a girl and was disappointed each time I didn’t come around. And now, here I am at 24 still not doing the laundry she thought I would be around to help her with. She thought I would be her. But, I’m not.
She immigrated to Bronx, New York when she was seven and went to school until the seventh grade. She didn’t stop school because she hated it, which she did, but her grandmother was afraid for her safety. I think the real reason was to keep her pure for her future husband. Her grandmother was afraid that boys would take advantage of her because she was so innocent. Unlike myself, she didn’t have three older brothers to protect her from harm. But, she did have four uncles who would kill someone for her. And we’re talking the seventies, so Albanians killing someone for their family was definitely not out of the question.
So, when the cops and the principal knocked on her front door, they explained to her uncles that it’s illegal for her not to go to school. My Daja Fran said to them, “What do you think, she’s staying at home? Oh no. That girl is running around with boys.” And because it was the seventies, they left it alone. Daja Fran painted my mom as a “rebel.” Though, she would be dead if she was actually caught rebelling. If only her family knew how much of a rebel she actually was after meeting Daddy.
So, instead of the traditional schooling she put me through, she was instead taught how to clean the house with the proper supplies. She learned how to cook, how to make the perfect coffee and the perfect plate of meza for company. Which, she then taught me, hoping that when company was over, I would help her continue being the perfect housewife and I, the perfect daughter. Though, I was not. At least not in the eyes of Albanians, if they knew that I dated.
“I let you go to three proms,” she says to me.
“Mom, I went to prom, I didn’t go to the parties. Anyway, that’s not the point, the point is…”
Cutting me off as she usually does, “What do you mean that’s not the point? You went with three different boys.”
I stood at the end of the wooden table where the clean clothes were. I matched and paired the socks because it’s the one thing she hates most and the one thing I fold best.
The other sock.
Hems pressed together.
Fold: in 1/2 — ankles to toes.
Flip inside ankle hem over and voilà.
A folded pair of matching socks.
She can’t yell at me.
She separates the colors and the whites, then the delicates and surveys the scene. She chooses to wash the whites first.
“So, can I tell you about the guy?” I ask her.
“No. Not unless it’s serious,” she says.
“So, you don’t want me to tell you when I’m going on a date then?” I ask. She wasn’t one to sneak out and neither am I, not that I wouldn’t. But, there’s no way of sneaking out of my house. Whichever door you open the alarm goes, “Front. Door. Open.” Or: “Balcony. Door. Open.” And, so on. I couldn’t even use the basement door if I tried to.
“So, you want me to sneak around like you did?” I ask.
“I didn’t sneak around,” she snaps.
“Yes, you did. When you would go “grocery shopping,” but somehow Daddy would be there? How convenient.”
“I was engaged,” she says, which is what she says every time I try to prove her wrong.
“That doesn’t matter.” I say. “If you were caught, you would not be married to Daddy.”
“Oh, God! If I were caught,” she says, “I would have been killed. I think Daja Nua would literally have killed me. I don’t know how I never got caught. The minute I met your father is when I became a bad girl. I was perfect until him.”
“But, why’d you do it?” I ask, smiling.
“Because I loved him. Our first kiss was in that grocery store, in the Photo Booth. We were smiling and then he kissed me. Do you know what he said after? Where’s your tongue?”
“Ew,” I say laughing with her. “Why? What did you say?”
“Somewhere in there,” she says laughing with her head tilted back. She decides to pick up the towels from the black wired basket and puts them into the washer. “When are you going to do your own clothes?”
“Mommy, every time I try to do my own clothes, you won’t let me finish.”
“Washing them and throwing them into the dryer isn’t doing your laundry,” she says.
“Actually, that is the definition of doing laundry.”
“No, you need to fold it too. You just leave it in the dryer and…”
“And you don’t give me a chance to get to it, then complain that I didn’t do my laundry. This is a cycle that will never end. Now, can I tell you about the new boy?”
“How old is he?” This is always her first question followed by, “What does he do?”
She picks up the Clorox from the sink and pours it into a measuring cup we have for Clorox and Clorox only.
One cup: Clorox.
One capful: Tide.
One capful: Downey — the best smell in the world.
“He’s 30 and he’s a writer.”
“30, Katherine! Why so old?”
“He’s not old. He’s so cute!”
“Where did you meet him?” She asks.
“At the writing conference in Florida. He’s still in Florida.”
“So, you’re not seeing him?”
“We speak every day,” I say with a smile.
“Is he a nerd?”
“Of course, he’s a nerd. He’s a writer. And a professor. And I’m going to marry him!”
“Katherine! You don’t know him.”
“Yes, I do! And he’s moving to New York for me.” She whips her head at me. Shakes it back and forth with disbelief.
“What is he going to do?”
“He already got a job as a teacher and is applying to other schools. He wants to marry me next year.” I say.
“I’ll have to meet him,” she says. I look at her. She’s never wanted to meet anyone I’ve ever dated. “It must be serious if he wants to move here to be with you.”
“It is serious.”
“Don’t focus on him. Focus on school first,” she says to me with a serious tone.
“Why?” I ask.
She places the folded clothes into the white basket for me to bring upstairs to put away for my brothers because they can’t put away their own clothes. “Put them away, don’t just place them in the closet. Hang the clothes, Katherine.”
“Ok, but why don’t you want me to focus on him? Obviously, school comes first.”
“Because I don’t want you to be like me, relying on your husband. I want you to get a degree and make something of yourself and then get married,” she says.
“I want to get married and get out of here.”
“I had a daughter to help me and she just wants to leave me,” she says with a smirk.
“To be in love. To live my life,” I say.
“Are you going to wash his sheets?”