I initially decided to start ironing my own clothes because paying someone else to wash and iron them seemed economically irresponsible. It wasn't that I couldn't afford that luxury. I could. Ultimately, though, I became uncomfortable simply thinking of that indulgence. What events on my calendar, I wondered, made it impossible for me to spend at the most an hour a week ironing my shirts?
So it was that I hauled my mother's ironing board out of the closet. It's a heavy, solid wood contraption. Setting it up is no simple task. There's nothing easy or automatic about it. And yet my mother used it throughout her adult life. During my childhood she heated her irons on the stove because our Arizona ranch house lacked electricity. Despite the obstacles, we never wore wrinkled clothes. Even my father's handkerchiefs were neatly pressed and folded.
Not too surprisingly, my mother taught me to iron. I began with those handkerchiefs and eventually built up to shirts.
"There's an order to ironing a shirt," my mother instructed with the implication that there was also an order to life.
She began with the wrong side out to make sure the areas behind the buttons and the buttonholes were pressed. She next ironed each side. Then in order she ironed the yoke, the back, the sleeves and finally the collar. Put the shirt on a hanger, button the top button, and go on to the next shirt.
Irons warmed on a cook stove require attention. An iron too cold doesn't accomplish anything. An iron too hot scorches the fabric or even sets it on fire. Of course, my mother's irons produced no steam so the clothes had to be 'sprinkled' with water and rolled up to keep them moist during the ironing process.
My current return to the ironing board required less thought and much less effort. For far less money than I was spending in one trip to the cleaners I bought a steam iron. Not only could it produce steam, it had a temperature control dial which even stated the type of material for each setting.
Feeling ever so awkward but determined, I began my foray back into ironing. I immediately heard the familiar creaking sounds from the ironing board as I moved the steam iron back and forth. I focused on those sounds and remembered sitting on a kitchen chair with my legs not quite touching the floor watching my mother iron my father's shirts. I could almost smell the irons heating on the stove. There was always one on the stove and the other in my mother's hands.
She and I sang while she ironed. Soon I heard myself humming those songs to myself as I focused ironing each part of my shirts. I remembered the pride I felt when I was finally allowed to iron a handkerchief. Filled with my adult technologically bound ersatz sophisticated life, that memory seemed strange and so out of context. But there it was. I had felt pride in ironing a square piece of cotton.
I finished ironing the first shirt and felt a return of that childhood pride. I recalled and reclaimed the rhythm of ironing and became lost in the process. Suddenly ironing my shirts became the most important activity in my life. With such complete immersion I was free to remember my childhood kitchen with its thick adobe walls. I heard the old butane powered Servel refrigerator clunking its way into obsolescence. And I felt my mother's gentle presence.
The seemingly mundane activity of ironing shirts has taken a meaning beyond self-sufficiency or financial prudence. I now iron my own shirts to feel the peace of concentrating completely on one activity. I now iron my own shirts to reclaim my connection to my childhood and to the remarkable woman who taught me so much more than how to get the wrinkles out of a handkerchief.