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.

My First Komen

We got off the shuttle, my good friend Wendy and I, and found the statue of young Lincoln, the spot where we’d meet Kate and David later on. A pink crowd pulsed on the green, ebbing into and flowing out of long tents. We plunged in.

The tents housed tables; the tables were staffed by vendors, healthcare professionals, and representatives from not for profits. We made our way through, smiling at people in their official ‘Race for the Cure’ t-shirts—pink for survivors, white with a pink logo for us, the supporters. We gathered freebies—water bottles, lanyards, pink shoelaces, literature—chatting with the folks behind the tables. And then the music swelled up and a voice called us all, over the loud speaker, to come watch the survivors’ walk.

Wendy led the way; she’d done this before. We stationed ourselves by the walkway leading to the stage, a spot where Kate would see us cheering when she came through. An enthusiastic young emcee introduced the Boobalicious girls, dancers in magenta wigs, oversized pink sunglasses, and bubblegum pink cheerleader costumes. Music pulsed, the Girls started to dance, and the first survivors strode through an archway of bright pink balloons.

The crowd began to applaud, and the applause turned to rhythmic clapping. The breast cancer survivors moved to the music. They surged toward the stage, where the emcee, the mayor, representatives from the Cancer Treatment Center, dignitaries of every sort, stood waiting to greet them. A teenaged girl, bald and sassy, one string of pink metallic beads around her neck, rolled her eyes at her teary mother. She rolled her hips to the music.

Behind her bobbed a woman we’d talked with on the bus, 89 years old, sporting 35 strands of beads. And behind them came tall women, short women, plump and thin women, women of every imaginable hue,– and men, too. Five strands, they wore; ten strands; one.

They danced and they hugged; they reached out for people in the crowd. They laughed. Tears ran.

As the first survivors reached the stage, reached the point of hugs and congratulations and official well-wishes, progress slowed. One lone woman, tall with long dark hair and a quadruple strand of pink beads, waited silently just in front of where we stood. She eyed the stage, thoughtful, patient, head high, hands at her side. As people jumped and crowed around her, she emanated calm and cool grace.

And then “I Will Survive” started to play.

At first I was afraid
I was petrified…

The song began its slow warm up, the crowd began to keep the beat, and the brunette survivor began to move, pumping a muscle on, And I grew strong…and I learned how to get along…

By the time Gloria Gaynor sang, Go on now go, she was in full dance mode, the song carrying her. She pointed with her long slender finger; she shook that finger tauntingly: Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?

And she jumped into the words I will survive! with hands flailing, hips swinging, lips parted in a huge and triumphant grin. The survivors around her made a circle; she danced their fear, their joy, their pain, their resurrection.

Wendy stood very still. My throat felt thick and frozen.

The last stanza rolled around; the crowd, survivors and supporters, was chanting it, belting it out. Did you think I’d lay down and die? OH NO NOT I! And the survivors again began to move forward. The brunette dancer looked a little startled; she resumed her slow promenade to the stage, coming to herself, no doubt a person who didn’t normally dance for a crowd of thousands. She caught my eye and gave me a quick thumbs up.

The song ended, the moment passed, the dignitaries had their say, and Wendy and I—Granny Brigade that we were—went hunting for the porta-potties.

We met our vibrant young friend, Kate, her husband, David, and their supportive entourage by the Lincoln statue, and we walked the cordoned streets of the city. It was a slow and dignified walk, past grand old homes, through medical complexes, down streets with trendy shops and open-air cafes.

It was not a race—though it was billed as a race for the cure—it was not a competition; it was a slow, steady surge of support and belief. It was an affirmation. Whatever happens, these people—these thousands of people—seemed to be saying, we are going to make it. From those of us there to walk in support, to those with one, seven, or 37 strands of survivor beads, to the family members with the smiling picture of their beautiful mother and her birth and death dates emblazoned on their custom T-shirts, the message was clear: the spirit can’t be quenched.

Whatever happens—WHATEVER happens,–the crowd carried the message forward: We will survive.

Martin’s House of Books

Most days she loved her work. She loved the ‘standing on the threshold’ tentative bravery of the sixth graders she taught: their readiness to explore new territory. She liked searching out accessible translations of classic works–a modern Odyssey, perhaps,– and sorting through the latest young adult offerings to find the finest, most meaningful, most compelling pieces to share with her class. She even liked grading their essays, although with two a week, it was a never-ending chore. But she saw their growth, in thought, in craft, in expression.

That was most days. Some days nothing clicked and many things grated. The students snickered and tweeted; parents complained; the school administration badgered her with reminders of soon-due reports and the necessity of administering state-mandated testing during precious class time.

On those days, she looked at her students, who were not looking back, and doubted she was even making a dent. She pondered how to respond civilly but cogently to the note from the parent who thought her son’s English homework was taking precious time away from his basketball participation. She got out her big paper calendar and tried to see how she could fit the damned tests into the schedule of lessons and still cover all the essential topics. And she wondered why she was pouring herself into this thankless, thankless job.

On those days, she wished life came with a backdoor which she could just walk out for a while, leaving all the hassling behind.

On those days, she packed up her things after the school day ended and went to Martin’s House of Books.

She’d leave her car at home, dumping the heavy bag of schoolwork in the corner by the china cabinet, and put her canvas shopping bag, neatly folded and waiting on her desk for just these excursions, into her purse. And then she’d walk the half mile to Martin’s, down the hill, past where the neatly creepy gothic manse perched, and onto Alder Avenue, a working class street with bars and resale shops, automotive supply retailers, convenience stores, and sturdy old family homes.

It was in one of those sturdy, broad-porched houses that Martin Dempsey had his bookstore.

She always stopped on the porch to look at the clearance books; they stayed on the little shelf centered in front of the picture window until they sold. Some had been there since the day she discovered the shop. She’d open one of them–a vintage copy, say, of James Michener’s Hawaii–and hold it up to her nose: musty and crisp all at once. The pages were yellowed with age, and finely spotted.

She’d pull on the screen door and go inside. The house had no vestibule. A step through the door took her right into the first common room. The stairs stared right at her; Martin sat at his desk just to her right. And everywhere there were books.

The cookbooks lined the facing wall, and she always browsed through those first. She could spend an evening with a good cookbook, and if it was a cookbook memoir–well, she’d turn off her phone. She loved the classic food memoirists–MFK Fisher, Gladys Taber–and she liked the sassy new blogger-type writers–I Loved I Lost I Ate Spaghetti; Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes.

She’d say hello to Martin and survey the cookbooks, checking to see what was new. Well, new to Martin–all of his books were used, of course; rarely did he offer anything printed in the last year.

While she looked, Martin would slide off his stool behind the desk, and, as he put it, “pop into the kitchen.” He’d put the tea kettle onto his gas stove. This was Martin’s actual kitchen; he lived in the bookstore, and often she could smell a delicious roasting dinner. He lived alone, Martin did, —alone with thousands of books— but he believed in what he called “real meals”, and he made good use of the cookbooks on his shelves.

By the time she had explored the cookbooks–maybe setting aside a Jacques Pepin or something by Alice Waters–the tea was steeping in Martin’s little turquoise ceramic pot, a pot which had been his mother’s. He would bring out two sturdy mismatched mugs from the local pottery–one might have hand-painted pansies, the other a rustic plaid pattern,–and a delicate china plate. One of the things she liked so much about Martin, one of the things they shared, was a reverence for everyday objects with history. He used his mother’s dishes, things he’d eaten from as a child, that reminded him of that special woman. He made his living sharing the literature from the past century–sometimes, his books were even older than that.

There’d be two cookies on the china plate, large flat cookies, golden, sugar-studded, crispy brown on the edges. The cookies crunched and exploded; they were all butter and sugar, outrageous flavor. Martin made them once a week and shared them, he assured her, only with his most cherished customers.

They would settle in, with their mugs of Earl Grey, for a chat; she sat on a folding chair on one side of the counter, and he climbed back onto his stool behind it. One of the cats (there were two; the other was a woman-hater) came and curled up under her chair. It would yowl softly, hopelessly, wanting a chunk of cookie, knowing that would probably never happen. The tea and the food sat next to the adding machine he used for a cash register. He took cash and he took checks, Martin did; he didn’t deal in plastic. She could leave her credit cards, her debit card, at home.

Martin, who was cranky, opinionated, and very, very kind, would prompt her. “What,” he would ask, “are the little shits up to now?”

She would talk it through; Martin had taught high school history for 25 years, and he would guide her so that she didn’t stumble down into the land of misery. She would start out bemoaning the woeful receptivity of modern children to literature and thoughtful inquiry. And he would agree. But by the time she was finished, she’d be acknowledging that the latest project, in which the children wrote letters to characters or illustrated book jackets, was actually working quite well.

Martin would listen carefully. He was an odd looking man with parts that didn’t quite match. He was tall, but his face was round except for a jutting chin. He had slender shoulders and strongly muscled arms. His eyes were the piercing blue found in the Irish isles he loved so much. He had straight lank hair, gray and brown and white, and it fell, a limp bang, into his eyes.

These days, he seldom left his shop; a friend came in on Wednesday mornings and spelled him so he could take his big old muscle car out, do his shopping, pay his bills,– which he did in person, not by mail, if possible. He went to St. Nicholas Church’s 8 AM Mass on Sundays. In his youth, he had served in Viet Nam, and afterwards, he had not come home; he had gone to Ireland, to the Pacific Northwest, to Nova Scotia, back to Ireland. Had there been someone special there?

She wondered.

He came home finally, got married, got his schooling, took a teaching job. They’d never had children, and somewhere in that net of years, his wife had left. He retired early to care for his mother; she had left his father, too, but she moved into a house–this house–two doors down from the old man.

Martin kept his father updated throughout his mother’s illness. The old man brought the dog to visit and took care of his wife’s garbage and yard work. She slipped away in the middle of one night, without fuss or bother, as Martin nodded beside her bed.

He started sorting through her things, through her hundreds and hundreds of books, and then just gave up, moved into the house, built shelves, and opened a used bookstore. In the beginning, he closed on Thursday and Friday and traveled the state, going to sales and thrift shops, collecting even more books; now, people brought their books to him; his inventory grew and shifted, ebbed and flowed, and he stayed closer and closer to home.

She’d learned all this through the course of several visits. He would also tell her of some specific teaching disaster that would make her laugh–one time, he said, his students were so angry at a pop quiz (given because he had been so angry at their lack of preparation for his class) that they stormed out of the school when the bell rang and somehow hefted his Volkswagen Beetle onto the roof. It made a fetching sort of hood ornament, he allowed now, but in the day, he had failed, pretty much, to see the humor.

They had, he said, a helluva time getting it down.

He had refused, of course, to press charges, and some of those ‘boys’ visited the shop monthly now, small children, older children, grandchildren, in tow.

As they talked, they would savor their cookies, crumbs bursting onto counter and books, and she would lick her fingers and pick the crumbs up and eat them. The cat would sigh. When the tea was gone, Martin would clear his throat and clear their dishes away; conversation time was over. She would prowl through the shop.

Children’s books rested in and around and above the fireplace on the wall to the right of Martin’s desk–lots of Beatrix Potter, and an odd jumble that delighted her–every episode of the Babysitter’s Club; Anne of Green Gables; Lois Ehlert picture books; a series she especially liked by a British author about a boy named Tom and his stuffed monkey, Pippo; a random copy or two of a Hunger Games volume. The classics–Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Secret Garden,– were jammed onto shelves right inside the fireplace itself, paperbacks, hard covers. She often chose her next class read-aloud from inside Martin’s fireplace.

Then, ignoring the really old books and first editions housed behind Martin’s desk, she’d move back into what must have been his mother’s dining room. He had shelves from floor to twelve foot ceiling, and the room was a cave of fiction, with one wall of nonfiction and biography. She always found something there to soothe her–a Rosamund Pilcher or a Marcia Willet, Maeve Binchy, Jane Austen–something light and faraway, with likable, believable people and troubles that resolved by the end of the book.

She would take the books she’d chosen and leave them on the counter; Martin, who was reading, would grunt. And she would head upstairs, to where the paperbacks waited, in two old bedrooms, on wire racks that turned. High, unwieldy stacks crowned each rack, so that she didn’t dare actually turn them; she would snake through. She had a couple of mysteries she liked; Lord Peter Wimsey was a good read, and she liked the exploits of Dame Frevisse. There was a contemporary series about knitters in a seaside village that seemed to be a breeding ground for murders; those were fun and required no literary criticism or unraveling of symbolism on her part.

The back room held spy thrillers, cowboy series, military books. She didn’t usually go in there. Through a door on the back wall, always cracked open, she could see Martin’s Jenny Lind style bed, gleaming wood, chenille bedspread tightly pulled and tucked under the pillows. On the wall above, two pictures hung: a red toned Jesus with his sacred heart; the blessed Mother all in blue.

And then she would go downstairs, put her paperbacks on top of her other finds, and Martin would tot up her costs. She’d pull out her canvas tote, and they’d pack up her loot and say goodbye.

At the door, she’d always turn slightly and Martin would give her this funny little salute, first touching the index finger of his right hand to his right eyebrow and then pointing at her. She would smile and let the door slam gently behind her, swinging her bagful of books, swinging down the porch stairs, out onto the sidewalk.

Those were ‘can of soup’ nights; she’d heat one up on the gas stove, and eat at the table with a book splayed open next to her. She’d forgo doing any schoolwork, instead running a hot bath, soaking while she read. Often she’d finish the book in bed.

She’d think about Martin and his students and wonder–she, who was a relative newcomer to this town–if any of her sixth graders had descended from those boys who muscled that little car up onto the high school roof.

The next day, she’d walk back into her life, and always it turned out to be better. She was relaxed, the kids were in tune, the obstacles and irritations were bearable. She loved her work, even knowing that a different day would roll around, maybe next week, maybe next month. Knowing, too, that Martin’s House of Books was there, a doorway into a different world, an escape hatch when she needed it.

In Story Land


I’m reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and I’m asking myself this question, “Is Conroy a reliable narrator?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered a thousand times, I bet, from Mr. Durkin’s satire class in my senior year at Dunkirk High School to discussions with Dr. Bob Deming, almost twenty years later, as I pieced together my master’s thesis, to my own reading, forever tinted, and maybe tainted, by English classes.  We were analyzing [some would say over-analyzing; I had a class once that developed an exciting theory about the back story in a book.  Since the author was still alive, we sent off the theory and begged her for a comment.  Her comment was: “You English teachers always over-analyze everything.”] the story and asking ourselves, “Can we trust this narrator?”

Conroy uses his senior year at the Citadel as the framework for this memoir, which is the story of how important basketball has been in his life.  He was a scrappy, smart point guard, but one of the things he tells us in the book is that he was never more than a mediocre player.  Conroy might believe that; his strongest male influences, his father and his coach, were both odd, abusive men who seemed to have absolutely no interest in developing the young people in their charges. They certainly never told him to think highly of himself.  In fact, the mantra Conroy remembers Coach Thompson yelling at him, over and over, every game he played, was, “Don’t shoot, Conroy!”

So one of the tenets of this story is that Pat Conroy loved basketball, ate it, drank it, and slept with it all through college, but that, as a player, he never rose above the ranks of just so-so.

I don’t buy it.  The stories Conroy tells about the games he played, the quotes he includes from sports writers, the fact that his coach, that strange and turbulent man, once reamed out the team but excused the author from the rant–i.e., “You’re all losers and scum–except Pat Conroy,” suggest a very different story.

I believe Pat Conroy was a helluva basketball player.  But I believe, too, that he is convinced otherwise, that he would argue with anyone who suggested his excellence.  “I was a mediocre basketball player,” is one of the key beliefs his book is built upon.

I bet we all have things like that.  So much of our lives is built upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. We are a people of story.

There are stories we believe about ourselves, and a lot of time our first teachers are the ones who impart these tales.  Those can be positive or negative, delivered harshly or lovingly.  So a child whose mother says, “I love that picture!” will begin to believe herself talented, artistically.  The same child, when her mother, surveying her cluttered bedroom,  ruffles her hair and says fondly, “You’re such a little messypants!” starts to think, “I’m kind of a slob.” One telling won’t usually be enough to implant a belief so strong it defines the story, but, told over and over again, we begin to believe and internalize what we hear.

The telling can have enormous–and tragic–consequences.  I think back to when we lived in Ada, and I was going to a library book club.  We read a memoir by a man who had gone from abject poverty to being the Dean of a prestigious law school.  At the same time, a young man was pleading for his life in sentencing hearings at the court where my husband interned.  This young man had lined up seven people and shot them, gangland style; included among the people he shot were a two year old and a young teenaged girl, who both died.  The miracle, I guess, was that the others lived and told the tale.

That young man, too, grew up in abject poverty; in fact, as I read the book and read the testimonies of people who knew the defendant growing up, I was struck, over and over, by how similar they were.  It was eerie.  What was different in the way the men turned out?

In his memoir, the law school dean noted that his father was one of his main tormentors, neglecters, abusers–an addicted, seldom rational man.  But, every day his father told him:  You’re smart.  You can get out of here.  You’re going to college.

Did the other young man have a voice like that in his life?  I doubt it.  In fact, one of the people who testified about the cruelty and despair of his childhood said something like this, “We knew he was gonna turn out no good.”

Simplistic, yes, but still–Those were the childhood stories those men heard; those were the adult stories they lived out.

At my godchild Shayne’s house in Florida, I saw a picture of Shayne’s lovely niece, a beautiful young girl of Nicaraguan lineage, with a tiara on her head, a lovely gown–and my grand-niece Madelyn, with a tiny tiara of her own, happily ensconced on her cousin’s lap.  Shayne explained that the photo was taken at her niece’s quinceanera, a tradition in cultures with Hispanic roots.

I had never heard of the quinceanera, so when I returned home and found a copy of Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceanera at a library book sale, I bought it and took it home to read. Alvarez, who grew up in the turbulent sixties and seventies, and never had or considered a quinceanera, became fascinated by the custom as an adult, and so she traveled around the country researching it.  She visited families of great wealth, who had celebrities and over the top celebrations– and families of great poverty, who provided parties that were just as lavish and financially disastrous by their standards.  There is a quinceanera industry, Alvarez reports, sellers of dresses and tiaras, party planners and caterers, who make their livings on quinceanera customers.  It’s a big deal.

Alvarez explores the roots of the custom and its meaning, and she tells us it’s all tied up with the stories we’re telling our daughters. What does this particular quinceanera say to the young woman–is it, “You are now a beautiful sexual being, ready for marriage and motherhood”?  Is it, “Look at you: beautiful, powerful, vibrant! You can do anything you put your mind to”?  Or is there another story behind the glitz and ruffles?

Alvarez writes, “…there are stories in our head about who we must be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives.”

Do the stories doom us?  I have to think otherwise.  I have to think that there are moments in our lives when the stories we have accepted rise to the surface of our consciousness and we are forced to choose.  Do we accept the belief that we will never amount to anything? Or–do we start the course that will prove those storytellers wrong?  And what can we do to realize what stories are driving us, what beliefs we have internalized that define our choices?

Pat Conroy’s belief is an appealing, humble one, “I was not a very good basketball player…” Conroy obviously has gone on to a dynamic and successful career; he’s a well-known writer.  Heck, he’s a person who worked out his private story on a very public stage.  Would he have been a different person if his belief had been, “I was an outstanding leader on the basketball court?”

I don’t know, but isn’t it interesting to ponder?  And isn’t it fascinating to ask ourselves what stories we play out every day?  How do we bring those stories to awareness, to where we can accept them or reject them mindfully?

That, I think, is the climax of our rising narratives—the point and the path that will determine how our own individual plots play out.  I hope my narrator’s been reliable.