Ahh, freshly baked ... clothes

I like to walk into a home and smell somebody's ironing. It's sort of like bread baking. Not quite as good, but close.

I guess it's a matter of plant fibers and heat. You've got your wheat or your cotton, and you've got your oven or your iron.

Never thought of it that way until one of my son's friends waltzed into our house and his face lit up. "Yum! What's cooking?"

There was nothing on the stove or in it. Just laundry tumbling in the dryer.

Not that anybody irons much anymore. When I was a kid, everybody did. Everybody's mother, anyway.

You'd come in from outside and there she'd be, sweating over the ironing board, which was wooden, rickety, and covered with unbleached domestic.

The kerplunk! of her iron. The sizzle of her steam. That hot aroma.

And those cute little rolled-up balls of items to be ironed. They were pants and tablecloths, or blouses with Peter Pan collars, sprinkled with water from a watering bottle, one by one, then tightly rolled and laid in a wicker basket.

Folks ironed their handkerchiefs as well. I've even known people who ironed their socks!

For somebody who lives in T-shirts and jeans, I'm pretty good with an iron myself. It's one of those satisfying humdrums, like weeding or washing dishes. You switch to automatic pilot, to that wordless place in the mind where painters paint from, truck drivers drive from, and ironers follow the rounded curve of a shoulder seam.

Not that I do it much. A skirt for Sunday every now and then. But I leave the board standing in the back bedroom, so it's handy.

In fact, I just bought myself a brand-new iron with a retractable cord. The thing lights up like a flying saucer. It turns off automatically. And, of course, it steams. No more balls of damp items stacked in a basket by your board.

We've come a long way, baby.

I recall examining the small, triangular irons that stood among the clutter on my great-grandmother's back-porch table. They really were irons. I mean, that's all they were: heavy, molded chunks of iron with handles. You'd take one off the wood stove, use it till it cooled, then set it back down on the hot stove and start to work with the second.

Great-grandmother had four daughters, not to mention a couple of sons and a husband. You know those turn-of-the-last-century photographs: Imagine ironing the vast swaths of material in the skirts they wore and all those frills and furbelows.

Nowadays, if you mention ironing, most folks go "ugh" in chorus. Unless, of course, they're under 40. Then they just look blank.

My little sister, for instance, doesn't even own an iron. Polyester fibers came along about the time I became a teenager; Sis doesn't remember when most folks ironed every garment they owned.

But when I broached the subject with a group of my female peers, they groaned out loud.

Dorothy sighed. "Boil the starch. Roll 'em up in balls ..."

The mother of six, she'd get so tired of ironing, she'd give up. Temporarily. She'd have half a freezer full of balled-up clothes. (That way, the dampened clothes wouldn't mildew.)

Once Dorothy sent all her clothes off to the lady across the street. Two basketsful. It took her three trips to carry them home again in her arms.

That little splurge cost her all of $8, a whole lot of money in the days when you could rent an apartment for $20.

But her mother was just coming to visit her then, and sometimes a woman's gotta do what another woman just can't do.

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