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Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Irony Of Ironing










I am ironing. Mark this day on your calendar. I have not ironed is too embarrassing to tell you when I last ironed. So let us return to the first time I did. I was seven or eight. In our apartment. In the kitchen. Starting my apprenticeship. Learning the trade. The steps to a perfectly ironed shirt. The only kind my father wore, when money was tight, as it often was. On rare occasions he would treat himself to the Chinese laundry down the street, where the shirts, steamed and pressed, appeared wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. Each shirt starched and folded, a slim strip of paper, holding the knife edged collar and cuffs in place. The bar for perfection set impossibly high.

But there I stood, in the basement, beside the washing machine, taking mental notes as my mother fed the shirts one at a time through the wooden wringer atop the machine. Sleeves smoothed and folded into the body of the shirt and rung damp to dry. On the sink, a red rimmed metalware pan filled with cold water and instant Niagra powdered starch.  A dip into the milky liquid, then shirts pegged out to dry. In the winter, on a clothesline stretched wall to wall across the damp dark basement. In the summer, shirts suspended by their shoulders with wooden clothespins, dried stiff by the wind and the sun.

The wind up and now the pitch.

Nope. Not yet. Another step.

Sprinkling The blessing of the shirts. With water inside an old Nehi root beer bottle, corked with a pierced aluminum top. Sprinkle. Sprinkle. Stop. Drop. Roll. Or was that the recipe for tornado drills? Regardless, the end result, a pyramid of damp tubes on the TV tray under the window.

Now onto the appliances. The iron. Yes. I am ready. I am willing. I am able. No, not. Not hot. Yet. The iron must be sizzling hot. Spit sizzling hot. My mother plugged the iron into an outlet in the light fixture on the ceiling. Lugged the ironing board out and creaked into place. She spit lightly on the bottom plate of the iron she held in one hand and extended her other hand to me. Shirt please. Unroll. Collar and cuffs first. Shoulders next. The back. The right front. The left front. Collar and cuffs one more time. Hanger please. Unroll. Spit. Repeat.

A clarification is in order. My mother did not iron only shirts. She ironed everything. To perfection. Pants and jeans and sheets and towels and just about anything made of fabric stupid enough to sidle through the kitchen past the Nehi bottle. When I say she ironed everything, I mean everything. Even an innocent like me, on the way out the door to school, could be "touched up" with a hot iron so that the pleats on my skirt hung perfectly straight. I have the tiny scars just above my knees to prove it. That's what happens when you try to iron a moving target.

I am now free to share, perhaps our darkest family secret, as mom can no longer complain and one day my family will tell similar tall tales. One day, one dark day, I came home from school early and caught her ironing the brown paper bags from the supermarket. I didn't tell a soul, because if she was busy ironing bags, she didn't have a free hand to iron me.

I took a travel iron to college. It traveled to the back of my closet and I never saw it again. Times change. The late 60's meant Women's Liberation. Some burned bras. I, I trashed my iron. The birth of polyester. the rise of Dacron, lifted women like me into the world of drip-dry and wrinkle-free. The anti-ironing rebellion led to an era of polyester fashion faux pas. Pant suits, leisure suits, neckerchiefs, white belts and white shoes, long hair and side burns. Who knew the historical, cultural and social ramifications of laying down the iron. Freedom and mountains of very bad clothes, non-recyclable, instantly flammable, synthetically styled shirts and shorts, poured directly from a test tube, top stitched and stretched taut in colors only seen under the influence of psychodelic drugs. Clothes that are not vintage. Not retro. Suitable only for Halloween and old yearbook photo pranks on Facebook. Not a wrinkle in sight. Permanent. Perfectly and permanently pressed even now at the bottom of your nearest landfill.

And then I married. The son of a member of the secret society of brown bag ironers. Mere minutes after the dawn of Earth Day, natural fibers snuck back into the laundry bag. My husband, like me, learned to iron from one of the best in the business of steam vent management. Perfect. Perfectly pressed shirts. I watched him in awe. He watched me. Wanted me. To be perfect too. But I knew the secret. I grew up with two older brothers. If you do something badly enough, people stop asking you to do it. So I did. I admit it. I ironed badly. I was a liberated woman of the 70's. I'd burned a bra. Went a whole week without shaving my legs or my armpits. I could do it again. Well, I could threaten to do it again.

That was enough. Home free all the way to the dry cleaners.

Then I had two boys of my own and I taught them how to iron. But. This is important. They never saw me iron. Never.

Times change as they often do. I bought a new shirt. By mistake I washed it the way I wash everything one big happy family. A 100% cotton blouse hanging on the back of the door waggling its sleeves at me for two whole weeks. A wave of nostalgia washed over me and I found the iron behind the "just for emergencies" 72 pack of TP in the closet. I plugged in the iron. Spit for luck. And cried.

Because, there beside me, iron in one hand and the other on my shoulder, was my Mom. "A little touch up maybe?" She winked and her lovely face vanished into the mist of steam.

These days I have wrinkles, the ones you cannot iron away, the kind you earn. I am hard pressed to tell you that I miss the woman who taught me that any job worth doing is worth doing well or not at all.

Choices, she said, make good choices. 

I did. I chose not to be perfect

No matter how things come out in the wash.

These days I do my ironing out and smoothing over,

by saying sorry and hoping for forgiveness. 

It doesn't always work, but when it does

it feels just like

a perfectly ironed shirt,

lovingly wrapped up in brown paper

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