all of the selves we Have ever been
The Ironing Age
“DON’T DO IT!”
“Don’t do it, Buffin!” my friend yells at me like a rescue worker talking a person off the ledge.
Except we’re on the phone.
And this is not a life-threatening situation.
We are talking about ironing. Yes, ironing. You remember, the act of smoothing out wrinkles using a hot, flat metal device.
My friend is appalled that I still iron "in this day and age.” Of course, I saw the Ironing Age coming to a close long ago. Some years back, a friend bemoaned the fact that her son had outgrown several items while waiting for them to be ironed. In more recent years, I’ve had phone conversations cut short by my long-distance friend, Joyce. Hearing the dryer buzz that the cycle was ending, Joyce dropped the phone and made a sprint for the laundry room to retrieve the clothes while they were still warm in order to avoid having to iron a single piece.
Back at the peak of the Ironing Age, we had an “ironing pile” in our home. Eventually, it grew to more than a pile. It became several piles. Soon baskets full of wrinkled clothing occupied half of our basement. With six people in the house in the days before permanent press, this mountain of wrinkled fabric did not take long to develop. Toward adolescence, I realized that once an item made its way into the ironing pile, it was as good as gone—outgrown or out of style before it was ever seen again. Venturing down to those overflowing baskets, I felt like the family archaeologist resurrecting ancient and mysterious artifacts.
My mother, an early pioneer in the whole working-mother movement, had very little time for housework. Mom tried various maneuvers to deal with the ironing chore. One example was the mangle that appeared in our home as a hand-me-down from my grandmother’s house. The darn thing was HUGE and looked menacing. “Mangle” seemed like an appropriate name, and maybe that is why the device sat untouched despite the effort of moving the monster 100 miles.
Then there was the freezer period. Mom read a time-saving hint that if you rolled up your laundry while it was still damp, put it in a plastic bag, and placed it in the freezer, it would be easier to iron. Years passed with rolls of frozen laundry taking up our freezer space. It is not that we forgot about those frozen bundles, we peered around them daily when we went to the freezer to pull something out for dinner.
Now don’t get me wrong, some ironing did get done. Clothes were selected on a priority basis—whatever had to be worn that day became the priority. By the time I got heavily into ironing, my dad was wearing dress shirts to work every day, and my sisters and I had school uniforms with blouses and cotton gym suits. Each morning, I trudged downstairs ahead of the others to iron the day’s priority items.
It was in the summers that I really got into ironing. There wasn’t much else to do, and the ironing was a little easier in the summer since we didn’t have the daily priority school attire. Sheets, pillowcases, and tablecloths needed to be ironed back then if you planned to use them. No reliable permanent press existed that was worthy of the label. Sometimes I would set up the ironing board in front of the television and watch soap operas for hours. Tame by today’s entertainment standards, those old soaps were still pretty provocative for a teenager who spent her summers ironing.
My friend, Joyce, with the built-in sensor for the end of the dryer cycle, got her sex education while ironing—or pretending to be ironing. After she discovered one of her older sister’s college textbooks on human sexuality, Joyce would go downstairs under the pretense of ironing and spend hours looking at pictures of naked people in various sexual positions. Joyce was so fast at ironing that she could make up for lost time, and her parents never knew the difference. Perhaps, the trauma showed itself later in her obsession with the dryer cycle.
Ironing was never that exciting for me. Most often, throughout the year, I used that ironing time to daydream and reflect on my own life. I could count on those ironing hours as quiet time in our household. No one wanted any closer to the ironing board than they did to that old mangle. I got a lot of free therapy standing there pressing in pleats and ironing out wrinkles. I still get a little nostalgic every time I smell the heat and hear the sizzle of the hot iron touching the dampened cloth.
I taught my children to iron when they were young. But they have little need for it, and they are too busy, anyway. I wonder how they find time to reflect and iron out the wrinkles in their own lives.
We learn a lot about life as we grow up in our families. For me, hidden among the bushels of wrinkled artifacts was the lesson that all of our lives have wrinkles and embarrassing piles. All we can do is cope resourcefully, stick with our priorities, and keep on ironing, piece by piece.