It started with a dirty sock on the bathroom floor – an ordinary sight at Xep Campbell’s home in Port Townsend, Wash. It then turned into a hilarious mother-daughter endeavor that reached thousands of people across the world.
Campbell’s 10-year-old daughter, Kestrel, leaves random clothes lying around from time to time, and most often, Campbell – slightly annoyed – tosses them in the laundry hamper.
This time, though, she didn’t, curious to see if Kestrel would eventually pick up the solo sock.
“I just decided to see how long it would stay there without my intervention,” said Campbell, adding that the sock remained on the white-tiled bathroom floor, untouched, for an entire week.
Then Campbell, 45, opted to extend her parenting experiment. She put the sock on display – literally.
She turned the soiled sock into an art exhibit of sorts. First, she created a small museum label, complete with a black border and bold title, which she taped to the wall above the sock.
She gave the display a name: “The Forgotten Sock.” Below it, she wrote: “Mixed Media” and “On loan from the collection of the artist.”
“I thought, oh, that will be funny, and she will roll her eyes at me and pick up the sock,” Campbell said.
But Kestrel had a different plan.
Rather than reacting with a giggle (or an eye roll) and throwing the neglected sock in the laundry bin, Kestrel decided to play along. She positioned the sock on a wooden pedestal she made last year, a contribution she said elevated the exhibit.
That’s when the display unexpectedly turned from a mother-daughter standoff to an elaborate and absurd bonding activity. Kestrel, who is in remote school and spending a lot of time in the house, was glad for the distraction.
Campbell said the display needed an audience. So they placed barnyard animals around the sock, and even erected a mysterious monolith – a nod to the structures that have popped up (and subsequently disappeared) in recent weeks around the world.
Eventually, the scene became crowded, as the mother-daughter duo continued adding an array of elements to liven the display, including a white picket fence, more toy figures, Christmas lights, a flameless candle, a pirate ship and other miscellaneous objects. Some additions were homemade (including the monolith, which they created by painting a piece of matte board silver).
“It was a joint effort,” Campbell said.
Campbell posted the progression of the evolving exhibit on Facebook on Dec. 2, as well as an outline of the sequence of events, thinking others might get a laugh.
What she didn’t expect was a huge reaction.
“I initially posted it privately on Facebook, and some friends asked if I could make it shareable. I usually don’t do that,” Campbell said. But after confirming it was fine with Kestrel, she made the post public, and to her amazement, it completely blew up.
“This has been such a crazy year for everybody from every walk of life, and dirty laundry is something we can all identify with,” Campbell said. “We all desperately need something to laugh about, and somehow, the sock became that thing.”
To date, the post has been shared about 150,000 times, and thousands of comments have poured in.
“I didn’t expect it to go viral, but the internet is a funny place,” said Campbell, adding that this experience has served as a teachable moment for her daughter about the internet. “We’ve tried to drill into Kestrel that when you put something on the internet it’s there forever.”
What surprised her most, Campbell said, is that people were not only grateful for the hearty laugh during a difficult time but that many were genuinely touched by the silly mother-daughter bonding experience.
In addition to a torrent of comments on the post itself, Campbell’s Facebook inbox flooded with messages from strangers.
“After being in battle with my teen daughter about some nonsense that brought me to tears, I retreated into my office to cool down and happened upon your piece,” one person wrote. “It was the brilliance that I needed to find humor in the moment again.”
“Your Forgotten Sock post has made me laugh such a good belly laugh that has been absent most of 2020 and given me such a warm fuzzy feeling inside about the love shared between a mother and her child,” another said.
Perhaps the message that touched Campbell most was from a stranger who said the story brought them out of a bad place.
“I have been teetering on the brink all day but I now see some light,” they wrote. “Nothing makes me happier than humor and creativity all rolled into one. That this is an exchange between a mother and daughter makes it all the sweeter!”
For many parents, the story is profoundly relatable. Beau Ohlgren, a friend of Campbell’s, explained why the sock saga moved him.
“I think it really captures life right now,” said Ohlgren, who is a foster parent. “Parent-child relationships can be challenging, and you are at home all the time. Dishes and laundry can be a common frustration point, and the fact that Xep didn’t take it too seriously, and instead had a very enjoyable bonding experience, just hit home.”
“It’s also just so quirky and surprising in a way that is touching,” he added. “It became this exciting story of watching the sock get further and seeing the response of people not just loving it, but also seeing that connection to mental health and children and putting their money where their laugh was.”
Many people urged Campbell to capitalize on the story in some way (some suggested she write a book), but she declined. Instead, she updated the original Facebook post and wrote, “if this moved you or made you giggle in a way that felt really good and that you want to give something back, a donation to this amazing organization called Jumping Mouse Children’s Center would mean a lot to me.”
Again, to her surprise, hundreds of people made donations to the local charity in honor of the spontaneous Forgotten Sock exhibit.
“We got 75 donations in three hours. This has never happened for us,” said Whitney Friddle, the development manager at the organization, which provides expressive mental health therapy to children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to support.
In less than a week, nearly $10,000 has been raised, from donors in 11 countries.
“Donations have been coming in from everywhere, all over the country and all over the world. And all of them have these lovely notes: In honor of the Forgotten Sock, in honor of this mother and daughter bond, in honor of the joy this brought me today,” Friddle said.
The unexpected surge of funds is especially meaningful to Jumping Mouse Children’s Center during the pandemic.
“Need has really risen, with school disruptions and parents working from home. It’s been a tough year, and this has just been such an uplift,” Friddle said.
Campbell, who works in the nonprofit development industry, said she’s delighted by the reaction and unexpected outpouring of support.
The exhibit is no longer on display, as both mother and daughter thought it was time to take it down.
“Making people smile is my favorite thing,” Campbell said. “And increasing the good in the world.”