IRONING, ETCETERA

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I am full of useless information. That’s what happens as you get on in life. Gradually it becomes unnecessary to know the things you once learned in order to cope with the world you grew up in.

For instance, I know how to erase typewriter mistakes when there are carbons in the roller behind the front page. Now there are no more typewriters. Or carbon paper, either. I know how to not clog the kitchen drain with the liquid fat left in the pan after you’ve cooked bacon. Or not clog the toilet, if you thought you’d go that route. You pour the fat into an empty frozen orange juice can and put the can in the refrigerator till the fat hardens. Then you can throw the can in the garbage.

You might think that trick with the bacon fat is still a handy thing to know. Except now we’ve learned bacon is terrible for you — not just because of the fat and salt but also the carcinogenic nitrites with which it was cured. And you know orange juice is full of sugar calories, don’t you? Much better to eat the whole orange, even though it’s useless for congealing melted bacon fat.

And then there’s ironing. Does anyone still iron? In the home, I mean. When my sons emerged from college, impecunious, I attempted to teach the ironing of business shirts. Each gave it a half-hearted try, yielded to failure and found the nearest laundry. Yes, ironing can be hard. Apparently even harder than paying the laundry to do it when you’re short of cash, and then figuring out where to recycle the wire hangers the shirts come back on.

However, once upon a time there was much more than business shirts to consider. Those were the days when there was no such thing as a synthetic fabric that you didn’t have to iron. (Except rayon, which was considered, and looked, sleazy.) No such thing as wrinkle-free. There was no air-conditioning except in movie theaters; everyone – male or female — carried cotton handkerchiefs, sometimes monogrammed, in order to mop up up perspiration, handkerchiefs which then needed laundering and ironing. There was no sleeping in t-shirts or nothing at all. Men wore cotton boxer shorts as underwear and cotton (or silk) pajamas at night, all of which also needed guess what. My mother sent out the sheets and my father’s formal shirts to the Chinese laundry. But she did everything else herself — week in, week out, even in summer. So it was essential for a girl who might not have marriage to a millionaire in her future to learn to iron herself.

Thus it was that one summer afternoon I jumped the gun and asked her to teach me. I was eleven, already taller than she was, certainly tall enough to wield a hot iron on the board without danger of tipping it over. And there was a lot for me to practice on. Even in winter, my father put on clean underwear and a fresh white shirt twice a day — once in the morning and a second time when he went to work in the afternoon. Now that it was summer, he changed again after he came home at night on the subway and before having his late supper in the kitchen. “He’s a very clean man,” said my mother. He also used at least three white handkerchiefs a day, and often more; these too had to be done just so. And he had many more pairs of cotton pajamas than I did; whenever a pair got sweaty at night, it went into the laundry basket and later showed up on the ironing board.

We began with what was easiest. My mother set the ironing board up in the foyer and took his handkerchiefs out of the refrigerator, where they had been waiting for a couple of hours — slightly dampened, rolled up in a towel, and cool to the touch. (No steam irons then.) First you unrolled one and ironed all around the edges, pulling the cloth taut as you went, until you had a perfect square. Then you ironed the inside of the square flat, quickly enough not to scorch it yellow but not so quickly that it didn’t come smooth. Then you folded the square in half, ironed the crease, folded it in half again horizontally, and ironed the second crease. Now the handkerchief was a long narrow rectangle. You folded it twice, careful to keep the edges even, which produced a neat small square. And then you were done with one handkerchief, and had to start again.

However, after I got the hang of it and had finished five or six, ironing handkerchiefs became boring. Maybe boxer shorts would be more challenging? But when my mother let me try, I ran into trouble. The boxers were cut with a set-in waist and set-in crotch, so that you couldn’t get any parts flat without burning your fingers on the iron. And they were dampened more than the handkerchiefs, so that they steamed when pressed. The steam got the wrinkles out better, but made me very hot. By the time I had started on a second pair, I felt sweat rolling down the backs of my thighs. Perspiration began to drip from my forehead onto the board. I gave up, propped the iron on its stand, and went to run cool water on my wrists in the bathroom sink. When I came out, my mother was finishing the boxers I had left half done. And there were still more pairs, plus the remaining handkerchiefs, and the shirts and pajamas, to do before starting to make dinner.

She let me off the hook that time.   She had “The Story of Mary Marlin” to listen to on the big Stromberg Carlson radio in the living room, a daily soap opera fix which apparently made her hot travails with the pile of clean but still un-ironed laundry somewhat easier to bear. But eventually, I did learn how to do it all. Which was lucky, because I did not marry a millionaire. Twice, I didn’t marry one.

Now, more than seventy years later, I still have this boring skill that’s good for nothing. These days I send cotton shirts out. (Whenever either of us wears one, which is rarely.) It’s just easier. And the rest of our stuff comes out of the washer and dryer looking just fine. (Like jeans and t-shirts and sweats and yoga pants. What else do you put on nearly every day when you’re “retired?”)

On second thought I take it back about the “boring skill.” My ironing know-how is not entirely good for nothing.  I just got a whole new essay out of it.  Nothing obsolete about that.

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