I have loved ironing ever since my mother let me use an iron. I was 12 years old. From then on, throughout my high school years, I did much of the family ironing: bed linens, table linens, clothes, you name it. I even mastered the sleeve board, despite its tendency to collapse.
At first, I even pressed my father’s boxer shorts and undershirts, until my mother told me that although I was thoughtful to do so, these items did not require ironing, and we could save a bit of electricity if I omitted them.
Why would a preteen be fascinated with ironing? The appeal was in transforming a pile of crumpled fabrics into a tidy array of smooth items – either folded or on hangers. I delighted in seeing the resulting neatness.
Ironing was also a great thing to do while viewing my favorite TV programs, because even as a teenager I had trouble just sitting and watching. My mother had the ironing board set up under a bright floor lamp in our basement TV room next to the doorway of her sewing room, where she kept multiple projects in various stages of completion. When I headed to college, my mother ensured that I had an iron and a compact ironing board suitable for a dorm room.
As the years went by and I progressed through college, two graduate degrees, marriage, motherhood, and a career in higher education, ironing became a respite from my hectic life. On a Saturday or Sunday, I’d play a BBC mystery DVD and dive into the stack of washed laundry; even slips and camisoles were fair game. I found it altogether relaxing, enjoyable, and productive. I’d also touch up items in my closet, so that I would be ready for the onslaught of the week’s activities at work.
I’m now retired from higher education and starting to pursue other passions. My parents are deceased, and I’ve been cleaning out their home in South Carolina, which of course had a designated ironing area. Throughout the house, I’ve found drawer after drawer and closet after closet of beautifully ironed bed linens, table linens, and clothes – all done by my mother.
While emptying those drawers and closets, I had an epiphany.
After almost a lifetime of ironing, I now realize that my enjoyment is grounded in much more than delighting in tidiness or enjoying productivity while solving a British TV mystery. Ironing was central to my mother’s character: She was lovely, thoughtful, and meticulous. Her approach to caring for our family and home reflected those traits, and so she ironed everything (except my father’s boxer shorts and undershirts). Some of my earliest memories are of playing happily at my mother’s feet while she ironed. I get it now: I associate ironing with the loving woman who raised me.
For my mother, ironing was a manifestation of her enormous gratitude for and pride in her life. Born poor in the rural South, coming of age during the Great Depression, and then orphaned when she was 15, my mother would say that you should look your best and also that your home should reflect you. She put that into practice. If you were fortunate enough to have possessions, you should take the best care of them that you could. And, if you had nice things, well then you’d better take really good care of them.
During recent months in my home in Virginia, I have been laundering and ironing my mother’s collection of beautiful table linens and many of the elegant clothes she sewed. It seems a fitting tribute to her, a way to express my love for her.
So far, I have ironed 17 tablecloths; 12 table runners; 24 place mats; 170 (yes, 170) dinner, luncheon, and cocktail napkins; 11 handmade short party frocks; and 10 handmade long evening dresses. I’ve watched hours and hours of BBC mysteries, history programs, classic movies, and how-to home shows, and I still have more ironing to go.
It’s a gargantuan undertaking, and I love every minute of it.