If huge things, like an education at the University of Notre Dame du Lac, which we collectively believe to be a different sort of creature than other educations for subtle and elusive but nonetheless substantive reasons, are composed of zillions of little things, not one of which is little and every one of which occurs under the sharp eye of the Coherent Mercy, then it matters somehow that our clean laundry came back from the laundry building wrapped in crackling brown paper and bound meticulously with string; and it matters that each boy (for only boys had their wash done by the University in those hoary days three decades ago) had a laundry number, five digits, printed on clean white cloth, and issued the summer before you enrolled, so that your mother, almost certainly your mother, in those hoary days three decades ago, stitched every scrap and bit of your few articles of clothing with your number. And it matters somehow that this morning, when I open a Paleozoic drawer, and discover a faded cloth ribbon 19 inches long with a procession of my laundry numbers, everything everything everything floods back over me, and I laugh and weep at once: for the shy eager frightened boy I was that summer; for the hours I never knew or cared that my tiny fiery patient mom sewed those numbers to my shirts and jeans and socks and towels and one dark wool suit jacket suitable for Mass because you will go to Mass every few days, won’t you, son?; for the cheerful vulgar gentle roommates who so often hoisted my bundle with theirs on their ways back to our hall, the greatest hall there ever was no others need apply; for the blessed paper and holy string, o the string the string, someone in the laundry carefully binding the bundles, each as big as a pillow, all day long, hundreds per day, each wrapping of the pile of clothes an act of love and reverence in the final analysis, each deft weaving of string a prayer of incalculable proportions, yes, for we can do no great things, only small things with great love, said that tiny sinew we call Mother Teresa. And again and again some kind soul bound my battered jeans and tattered shirts with sturdy crinkling butcher paper, snapping the corners in with practiced sleight of hand, and whipped string into a tight crisscross so fast the package had no time to complain, and slid the bundle down the line, eventually to be picked up by a burly humming lad from Kentucky, or the slums of Philadelphia, or a fishing town near Seattle, and carted across campus as if it weighed an ounce, which on those careless young shoulders it did, once upon a time. In your room it would be torn open without thought, a shirt grabbed because we have exactly 80 seconds to get to Emil, man, let’s go!, the paper later a wadded weightless weapon fired at a razzing roommate, the string used for emergency shoelaces, and not a hint of a thought, not a shard, for the unknown holy being who washed and wrapped the clothes on your back, or she who stitched those numbers to your clothes, or he who bought the clothes, or she who got a second job to pay your tuition, or they who lay awake at night silently wondering if you were safe and healthy and happy, and going to Mass every few days, and wondering if they had given you enough of a launch pad, enough sweet tools to carry you forward into the kind of man you might be. Perhaps somehow you became that man; and perhaps he opens a Mesozoic drawer one morning and finds a faded cloth prayer with a parade of his laundry numbers, and wonders if he ever could say thank you enough, to everyone who ever blessed him in the incalculable ways we are blessed, and he realizes he cannot, but we can try.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author most recently of a novel, Mink River. He received Notre Dame’s Father Robert Griffin, CSC, Award for Writing in 2010.