I had to iron a shirt today.
Usually my husband does the ironing in our house, but I suddenly needed a shirt for work so I was stuck. Ironing is always a kind of meditation for me. I am not very good at it so it takes a while as I create new wrinkles trying to press out others. Lots of time to think. My first thought is always my mother.
My mother hated ironing, or hated my father, I don’t know which, and inflicted her anger on his dress shirts. I have a very clear picture of her standing in her bedroom in front of the ironing board wearing a house dress. By the time I was in high school she traded the house dresses for slacks and knit shirts, but those early years all featured house dresses. The pockets, stuffed with cigarette case, loose change, green stamps and other assorted bits of lost and found, sagged like a GP on rounds.
She ironed with a cigarette (Benson & Hedges), her mouth an angry line, and kept the ashtray on the ironing board just past the spray starch. The ashtray never moved because the ironing board never came down. It stayed open in my parents bedroom for most of my childhood and was where she wrapped the Christmas presents.
Big Alice never made new wrinkles when she ironed. Her technique was a powerful and violent slamming of the hot iron onto the offending shirt followed by a furious pressing forward. Her whole body was engaged and at war with the cloth.
Being in the room when my mother ironed taught me to be still and silent so as to avoid her wrath being unleashed in my direction. I also learned to avoid ironing and wear my clothes wrinkled (until my boyfriend, now husband, offered to iron my clothes too).
I never did figure out how she could drag on that cigarette without using her hands and not drop ashes on the shirt. Since I no longer smoke, that skill will remain undeveloped.
I can iron when I need to now, and it always makes me think of my mom.