The Girl With the Iron Task

Irning station

Our final challenge in WordPress’s Writing 201 was to write a personal reflection.  Searching for a topic, I went looking for lofty, but I came in with ironing.

On New Year’s Eve morning, 2014, I go downstairs to the basement to iron paper.  I am on a re-purposing kick; this Christmas, all of our packages were wrapped in gifted, or reclaimed, or re-created wrappings.  That worked really well, and I plan to continue the practice for birthdays and baby showers and other gifting events.

So, I have brown shopping bags to cut up and iron flat, and a couple of big gift bags of crumpled tissue in all colors.  That, I’ve discovered, irons beautifully.  I fold the ironed sheets and hang them on the rung of a clothes hanger, and they can be used for all kinds of gifting.

I remembered, too, while I was making the bed, that I hadn’t completely unpacked my shiny red travel bag, waiting since we returned from New York State on the 26th.  I pulled out the remaining clothes–my silky, shiny white blouse, my easily wrinkled green blazer, my batik-y looking black and white shirt.  They’re clean, but they’re crumpled.  I will take these, too, down to be ironed.

Mark has just reconfigured what I guess we could call the ‘ironing station’ in the basement. He mounted a holder on a support pipe and added a designated outlet in the ceiling just above it.  The ironing board stands between the pipe and the heavy double laundry sinks–the wash tubs, we dub them.  The basement is unfinished, but it is dry and high-ceilinged and a comfortable place to work.

I plug the iron in, wait while it takes a moment to reach the low setting I’ve chosen, and begin to iron my silky shirt.

It has been ages since I stood by an ironing board just to iron clothes that will then be warehoused in my closet.  Every night, I make sure I have clean, neat clothes for work the next day; if needed, I run downstairs and iron a blouse, some pants, a jacket that’s gotten rumpled, a skirt or a dress. But ironing as a regular chore does not appear on my work chart any longer.  Mark irons his own shirts. Jim, too, fends for self. I iron my clothes when needed–opting, whenever possible, to hang things neatly when they are fresh from the dryer and need little touching up.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen, and often things are hung after they’ve settled, jumbled, in the dryer until they cool and rumpling sets in.  Those are the clothes I iron the night before.  I could, I think, as I press first the collar of my white blouse, then flip it so I can press that placket where the button holes are, and then the corresponding one with the buttons, put ironing on my regular list of things to do.

Monday? Scrub bathrooms.

Tuesday? Catch up on laundry.

Wednesday? Iron.

Or would that remind me just a little too much of what ironing meant when I was growing up? For ironing became symbolic, an emotion-fraught icon, between me and my mother. Ironing was a bridge; she stood on one side and said, “You WILL.”

I stood, lip stuck out, pouting on the other side, muttering, “Will NOT.”

But sometimes I had to.

My very first regular chore, outside of drying or putting dishes away, making my bed, and sweeping the floor, was assigned when I was six.  It was called “sprinkling the clothes.”  My tool was an old catsup bottle, glass, with the label long scrubbed off.  The metal cap, too, had been scoured of anything Heinz-y; it was silver and shiny and punctured about nine times with a small sharp nail.

I would fill the bottle with cold water, screw the top on tightly, and work on the rolled up clothes in the bushel basket where my mother kept the ironing.  That was 1961; nothing we owned was permanent press, and everything had to be ironed.  My mother did the wash in an electric washing machine and then hung it to dry–outside, weather permitting, or in the basement if it was too cold, wet, or snowy.  Anything you wore over your underwear came off the line rumpled and had to be ironed, from my father’s dark blue cotton work clothes, with the coal dust permanently etched into their seams, to the lacy white collars of my mother’s Sunday blouses.

We ironed men’s and kids’ undershirts and women’s brassieres, too, but stopped short of fanaticism at briefs and panties.  We also did not iron socks.

When she took the clothes off the line, Mom would fold them neatly into six-inch wide oblongs and then roll them up tightly and place them in the bushel basket.  I had to sprinkle each item so it was damp throughout, but not wet, and then our old electric iron could press the wrinkles out.

The ironing board made groaning and creaking noises when my mother set it up; it was a heavy old thing.  It often stayed up for days on end, in the archway between the dining and living rooms where my mother chose to iron; that was a bright and roomy spot.  Mom would plug the iron in; it would sputter and hiss and grumble into life. It had a cloth covered cord.  Where the cord met the iron, it was covered with a rigid slinky-like spring.  It was a hefty, searingly hot, almost animate appliance; it scared and fascinated me.

Mom would take a damp item from the basket, deftly shake it out, and begin to iron. As she worked, she taught me: there was a right way to do this job.  She often told me the story about her friend Marjorie, who visited one day while my mother was ironing shirts.  They chatted while my mother worked, but finally Marjorie said, “Stop! Stop! I can’t stand it anymore!” and she showed my mother the RIGHT way to iron a shirt,–first pressing collar, plackets and cuffs; then ironing the fronts.  Then she flipped the shirt over, folded a yoke and ironed the shoulders, spun it around, and then ironed the back.  Sleeves came last, and the shirt was ready to hang.

Before Marjorie taught her that method, my mother said, it took her half an hour to iron one shirt, wrestling with it all the while.  She was very proud of the Marjorie Technique.

Pants and slacks started with the waist band, pressed from the inside.  Mom pulled up the pocket linings and ironed them flat.  Then she pulled the waist of the pants up over the nose of the ironing board, ironing and turning, ironing and turning. She slid the pants off the board; she cracked the cuffs together, matching them exactly, and she ironed in a sharp crease.  All pants got this treatment. Even our jeans–which we called dungarees, back in those days–had sharply pressed center creases.

My mother kept essentials of the ‘presswoman’s’ trade by or on the ironing board; she had an ashtray, usually overflowing with the lipsticked butts of her Lucky Strikes; she had a cup of coffee, endless; she had a sharp sewing scissors to pluck off errant strings and threads. These she’d flick onto the carpet until she could vacuum them up.

The threads were such a constant that my youngest brother decided they were sentient.  He called them ‘fuzzies’ and screamed whenever he was near them.  We ran to get the carpet sweeper to stop his panicked cries.

I hoped sprinkling the clothes was a ticket into the sisterhood of women, and I looked forward to taking the next steps–discovering secrets known only to women, and learning to use the iron itself.

My mother wasn’t particularly forthcoming about the secrets, but when I was eight or so, I got to handle the iron.

I started with handkerchiefs, which I had learned to fold myself and then sprinkle.  We had an allergic, asthmatic, honkering family, and we didn’t use kleenex or paper napkins, so there was always an abundance of handkerchiefs in the wash.  My father’s everyday ones were industrial: some were traditional bandanna style; some were washed to softness and a creamy color far removed from their original white.  Those were bordered with bands of copper and brown of varying thickness.  For school and Sunday, the guys had square white handkerchiefs.  We women had dainty little hankies, printed or embroidered.

The men’s handkerchiefs were ironed and folded, ironed and folded, until they were flat, crisp squares, easily fit into pockets.  The ladies’ hankies got the same treatment, but ended as triangles.

I started out with great enthusiasm.  By the time I’d ironed my second or third basket of handkerchiefs, though, I’d discovered one of those secrets of the sisterhood: ironing was damned boring.

I graduated, reluctantly, to shirts as well as hankies.

It didn’t get better.  Long periods standing, repetitive motions; my feet got tired, and worst of all, I couldn’t read while doing this particular chore.

My mother emphasized what an important job it was.  She had categories for people, and one of the very worst was ‘slob.’  A slob was someone who sent her family out in wrinkled, untended clothing.  A slob slapped iron-on patches onto dungarees instead of meticulously sewing on thick patches gleaned from past pants, as my mother did energetically at her treadle sewing machine.  When that machine was not in use, a basket of mending rested on the treadle.  With five active, outdoorsy kids and a hard-working husband, my mother never emptied the mending basket.

We were NOT slobs.  Our clothes would be sharp-creased and shoulder-yoked.

Oh, joy, I thought.

It was about this time that one of my older brothers, who was in eighth grade or so,  was actively exploring the priesthood. (It was an exploration that didn’t, by the way, take.)  On weekends, the whole family would often go to events at one or the other of the seminaries within a 25 mile distance from our home.  My brother would be an acolyte, solemn and dressed in not just the traditional white and black, but sometimes in priest-like lace.

It was all creakily tradition-laden and boring, although once, at the reception after the service, we had wonderful ice cream, big bowls of it.  And, to my mother’s great embarrassment, one of the priests went and got me seconds–an equally big bowl–which I devoured in a less than lady-like way.

On one of these family outings, on a sunny day as we were driving along Lake Erie toward St. Columban’s on the Lake, a thought, bound and complete, fluttered down and settled squarely in my mind.  I was nine, and it felt like a big hand had reached down from the heavens, flipped open the hinged lid of my head, and firmly planted this fully formed idea inside.

This is exactly what I thought:  I cannot be a priest because I do not have a penis.

I was so shocked and so outraged by the realization that I sat up straight, upsetting the delicate ecosystem of four sturdy kids in the backseat of a 1959 Buick.

I did NOT share my thoughts with my family.  But I pondered how ridiculous it was, to make a rule based on anatomy.  Schooled in church history, it didn’t make an impact when someone suggested that gender roles were God’s decision.  I knew they gelled well after Jesus’s physical feet had left the earth, knew it was decided by a man or a group of men.  I was not convinced that those men acted on advice whispered into their ears by God.  In fact, there were many rules I didn’t trust them to have made from anything but self-interest.

I extrapolated the concept to other areas of my life.  My brothers could mow the lawn–I could not, because I didn’t have a penis.  I could, because my anatomy dictated it, serve the male-dominated family by ironing their clothes.

My attitude deteriorated.

By the time I was fully fledged into my teenage years, I had embraced two things: the cultural passage rite of believing that my mother was nuts and knew nothing, and the second wave of the movement for women’s liberation.  I started high school, I liked to say, in pin curls and Peter Pan collars–which had to be pressed. I left high school in torn bell-bottomed jeans and a green Army jacket, which most decidedly did not.

Throughout, there was a basket of laundry standing between my mother and me, goading us into fighting.  Why can’t my brothers iron their own clothes? I demanded.  Their arms aren’t broken, and God knows, it’s not highly skilled labor.

They do other things, my mother retorted, when she was in a mood to discuss.  (Sometimes, a heavy door just slammed down and the subject was summarily dismissed.)

I would do other things, I asserted.  I would LOVE to mow the grass, for instance.

You, my mother would tell me, are a SLOB.

We still didn’t have a dryer, and the clothes, although they smelled fresh and crisp from flapping on the lines in our small backyard, always looked wrinkled.  I fought my way from having to iron anyone else’s garb–leaving it all, I realized later with some guilt, on my mother–to only being responsible for my own clothing.  That sat in a burgeoning bushel basket.  Sometimes, I pulled things out and wore them as was, driving my mother crazy.

Sometimes I’d set up the big, scrawking ironing board and press just one item, putting the whole ironing assembly away after just one hit of the iron.  This, too, made my mother see red.

I blew my nose on hankies that were so crumpled they looked used before I used them.

My mother tried threats and logic and even superstition.  If one didn’t, she asserted, have all her ironing caught up by the time the New Year dawned, one would have ironing to do all year.

Oh, well, I said.

She tried guilt.  I remember when she took my father to the city for his heart surgery and said to me, “I do NOT want to have to come home and face those baskets of ironing.”

“We’ll get them done,” I promised, and she looked at me askance at the use of ‘we.’

A female relative came to stay, to ‘help,’ and she volunteered to take on the ironing.  Unschooled by Mom, she had her own methods, which included daydreaming and chatting and pulling a shirt onto the ironing board then staring out into space while she thought deep thoughts.  She would come to herself, quickly slap the shirt a few times with the iron, and slip it on to a hanger.

Mom came home, thrilled to see empty baskets, but her eyes narrowed when she discovered the ‘ironed’ clothes hanging limply in closets.  When she confronted me, I shrugged.  Nina did it, I said; I was busy enough with meals and work and vacuuming.

My father recovered; I moved into my first apartment.

I did not buy an iron.

I spent years coming to grips with doing the laundry.  I spent the same years coming to grips with my relationship with my mother.

I realized the ironing was a symbolic issue.  I was saying, It’s not right for women to have to be subservient, to take care of jobs that other family members could easily do for themselves.

She was saying, You’re throwing away years of tradition.  You’re telling me that all the time I’ve spent in performing this task has been mindless and worthless.

We were both stubborn women; we did not consider each other’s point of view.  And we both had some justice and some wisdom on our side.

But we did win our way through to true respect for each other before Mom died, when I was in my thirties, of lung cancer.  I valued the things she had taught me–the ability to hem a skirt, sew on a button, iron a shirt, all those homely skills that stood me in good stead many a time.  In my better, more generous moments, I even acknowledged enjoying their practice.

My mother respected my work outside the home, often telling me I worked too hard.

It was the closest we ever came to saying, “I see and respect your point of view,” but the message was received on both sides.

So I iron, on New Year’s Eve, 2014, with a lighter, sleeker model than the iron I learned on, in a designated space where board can stay standing and fuzzies will not terrify.  The pale winter sunlight slants through the high cellar windows; the iron hisses softly; the good smell of crisp, hot cotton wafts.  The repetitious motions are soothing; they free my mind to wander through those years and the repeated battles of will.  It was once so seriously dire; now It makes me smile to remember.

And now, I can acknowledge the satisfaction in doing this job.  There’s a kind of joy in taking a piece of clothing, sad looking, rumpled, neglected, and applying the heat and the steam that turns it into a proud addition to my wardrobe.  There! I think, as I slip a shirt onto a hanger.  That’s something.

It is New Year’s Eve.  There are dozens of shirts–mine, Mark’s, Jim’s–hanging on the basement rod.  My mother’s voice whispers, in my mind’s ear: If you don’t finish the ironing, you’ll have ironing to do all year.

Shall I iron them all and remove the curse of ever-present ironing?



I unplug the iron from its new outlet and set it down to rest, taking the handful of ironed garments upstairs with me.  I accept it with no qualms: my ironing will never be caught up.

I can live with it.


6 thoughts on “The Girl With the Iron Task

  1. What a wonderful read! I loved this piece, Pam, so wonderful how you weaved everything – and again, with wit and humor that makes me green with envy. You may not be a master ironer, but you certainly are a master weaver of words! It feels like I just read a delicious piece of your memoir.

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