I pull my iron down from the top of the clothes dryer, where it’s been idling for weeks. After dusting it off and checking for bottom-gunk, I carry the iron to the kitchen sink, push the red plastic steam valve down—as I learned to do as a child—and fill it from the tap with a thin stream of water. As water trickles into the chamber, I feel a stab of affection for this simple appliance that I rarely rely on anymore.
I head to the basement where I have to hunt for the ironing board. It seems that my husband moved it to hang some suit jackets encased in dry cleaner bags from an overhead pipe. Hoisting the board over my shoulder, I carry it up to the dining room, where I open the metal legs with one swift hand motion, setting off the signature ironing board screech.
Encircling the board with the sage green cotton dress I will wear this evening to lead a tree tour at the botanic garden, I pick up the now plugged in and steaming iron. Wetting my finger with spit, I lightly touch the bottom to elicit that little readiness hiss my mother taught me to test for so many years ago. I lift the steam valve, place the iron on the creased hem of the dress, and begin to move it slowly back and forth, applying just the right amount of pressure. The iron makes its comforting hiss music, my wrinkled dress becomes smooth and steam rises around my face. I turn the dress several times on the board, and soon I’m holding aloft a freshly pressed dress.
Do women always do this? Hold up our freshly ironed garments? Are we simply examining for the stray missed crease, or is this a small moment of celebration?
Ironing the dress comprises the most relaxed minutes of my day. My husband and grown daughter are at work, my teen-aged son is off recording music, and the house is quiet. The familiar ritual, now so rarely performed, involves communion with heat and steam, soft fabric and an appliance that doesn’t require electronic commands. It’s a break from cramming my head with botanical and historical facts that I will hopefully later be able to recall effortlessly as I lead my group through the botanic garden.
This moment on a summer day is a far cry from my first experiences with ironing. I grew up in a household where ironing was an extreme activity. My mother was a fanatical ironer and housekeeper and although she no longer has three young children constantly soiling clothes, she still has her “ironing days.”
As a child I sensed that ironing lay at the heart of many unspoken things in our household. While my dad went off to teach, coach sports and later headmaster during the day, my mother stayed home to wrestle with the messiness of the domestic scene. There were rugs to vacuum, floors to wash, basins to scrub and endless piles of pre-synthetic deeply wrinkled clothes.
Most of the jobs were done in a flurry of haste with kids afoot – my sister, brother and me and our noisy friends. But the ironing was different. The ironing was solitary. There was a zone around the ironing space, a shield almost, that we instinctively knew not to penetrate.
There my mother would be, in one of the rooms of our dormitory apartment or even an empty dorm room, her “spit curls” swept back with a colored kerchief, her board, her iron, her bowl of water for stubborn creases, and her pile. The pile seemed to arise from the earth itself, spilling everywhere.
Her face was usually pinched, she wasn’t talking, but she was ironing, yes she was ironing, hour after hour. It was spectacular to peek in and see the way the mussed piles morphed into shaped outfits hanging on hangers. My little brother’s razor-creased shorts and pants and shirts, my sister’s and my identical dresses, my dad’s outfits down to his underwear. In later years my brother would tell me that Dad was the talk of the school locker room with his creased “skivvies” and ironed t-shirts.
There was something else about the ironing zone. Music flowed from it. Some days it was the staticky AM station from Springfield, Vermont, which made me feel nauseous and headachy. But it wasn’t always fitful pop music from Springfield. There were days when Mom listened to her vinyl recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. There were days she listened to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. I still picture ironing when I hear music ranging from “Purple People Eater” to Tchaikovsky’s fateful lyricism.
I sensed the volcanic nature of the laundry pile and I tried to help. I ironed myself, from the age of six or seven, and until my head ached. When I babysat the faculty neighbor children, I tried to relieve those moms of their ironing and housekeeping duties too. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on a young mother’s face when she came home to find not only that her three wild children were sleeping soundly but also that all their clothes were ironed and hanging on the bathroom door.
I’ve never had a real conversation with my mother about ironing, although she’s deflected her share of good-natured barbs from the family about her ongoing zealousness for perfect creases and her shunning of commercial cleaners. I’m not sure I’d want to because I’m not sure that— despite the often pinched look on her face and the metastatic nature of the laundry pile—those moments with iron in hand, children elsewhere, didn’t represent her most uninterrupted moments of communion with her inner life. Perhaps they still do.
Later in the summer I help my daughter pack up and move to Chapel Hill to start a PhD program. Her clothes always hang smoothly on her slender body and she never seems to need an iron. As we cruise the aisles of her local box store for kitchen and cleaning supplies, I think about how glad I am that she won’t have to make space in her new apartment for a clunky board and a rarely needed appliance. But, as we fill the cart with such necessities as a food processor and microwave, I’m also secretly hoping she finds some meditative moments of domestic ritual to clear her head after hours spent in her busy lab and online.
A few days after returning home, I receive a message from my daughter, who is still shopping: “Today I almost bought an ironing board. There was a pretty light blue one at Target with white flowers on it and I suddenly thought it would be fun to own one. Then I remembered that I don’t know how to iron.”
© 2010, Melanie Choukas-Bradley