Kootenay Literary Competition

The Art of Ironing

By Jana Danniels

Adult Personal Non-Fiction – First Place

 

 

I do not iron. My mother, however, approached this chore in a unique and careful way, which was startling in such a chaotic, tumbledown house of five children of all ages. She, who was usually so free in all things, had three strict rules.

One: she always worked in front of the T.V. in the living room. Two: she only devoted an hour a week to the task. Three: the family must be still and had to stay at least three feet away from the ironing board probably because of our usual rough housing every minute of every day.

She broke these rules only once.

*

December 1959. Saturday afternoon.

When I was seven years old the Christmas heavens opened without warning, gifting me an hour alone with my mother. Carols blasted from the transistor radio in the kitchen. Baking shortbread filled the house with the smell of hot sugar and butter. Rolled dough waited on the floured table to be cookie-cut into shapes. The combined oven heat and the problem water radiator in the living room for once made every room cozy to the brink of toasty.

As my mother stood by the front bay window, the decorative angel hair swirled around the string of blue lights on the pine beside her. She smiled. Presents rested under the tree as snow fell outside the window. My senses were so full to over-brimming that I laughed aloud.

She straightened an ornament and gazed out the window at the street, then pulled back the curtain further to get a closer look. I could hear her curse quietly. As she walked back through the living room, she kicked the metal heater that instantly pumped out a cloud of dust.

Then, my mother broke the rules. Although all my father’s shirts had been neatly pressed the night before, she lugged the ironing board towards the kitchen. My stomach lurched. I could feel my heart pounding. Something was wrong, so very wrong.

There was a knock at the door.

*

 

The night before.

This Friday, as every Friday, our household lived a ritual that created a rare quiet for a full sixty minutes. It began with a settling– the baby into the crib and me onto the middle of the couch with my dreamy-faced younger sister propped up against me. The two older brothers sat cross-legged on the floor organizing an antique stamp poster. Concentrating deeply, they worked in tandem coordination. My father’s armchair in the  corner remained empty for he was out doing something of which I knew nothing. If he had been there, his head would have been nodding rhythmically in sleep.

Then, when all the children were ready, my mother began. A petite woman, she dragged the heavy ironing board across the room to just the right spot beside the crib where she could watch her work, the T.V.  and the baby all at the same time. A white table cloth was draped over the board as if it were an altar and she smoothed it in long hand motions until wrinkle free. Next, the iron was filled with distilled water and turned to the steam function. My father’s button-down-collar shirts for his office job, now that he had been promoted from the factory shifts, were sorted in the laundry basket. Then, the first one was laid out in waiting. Hangars were hung against the back of hard-backed chairs to receive the finished shirts.

Right at seven o’clock my mother gave the nod to the oldest brother who turned on the television set to ABC for Walt Disney Presents. Walt, the father of all fathers, introduced the show of the evening, Davy Crockett. As a family, alone and together, we entered into the thrilling world of technicolor adventure.

In secret I watched my mother more than the program. I felt spellbound to see her work so calmly and intently. She patted the sleeves into place and checked the water level in the iron and tenderly unruffled collars. All the rest of the week she was a blur of activity, so much to do and so little time, and yet here in the dim room I could watch her unnoticed. The TV talked, the children watched, the iron hissed and the steamy smell of freshly warmed, pressed shirts filled the room. I was with Walt and my mother. They embraced me until by half past the hour I relaxed safe and protected. I felt loved.

*

That Saturday afternoon before Christmas.

There was a knock. After opening the door, my mother and I stood side by side as we faced the stranger. My head was level with the man’s waist. I noticed the torn corner of the worn wool coat and that he was missing a button, jobs that in our house would be mended up in a flash. I gazed up at his face which looked waxy, pale instead of bright with cold. I was glad that his heavy toque covered his ears. The man looked like a certain type of character from my Disney movies, the one Walt would call ‘down on his luck’.

He was a vacuum cleaner salesman with an upright Hoover beside him to prove it. My mother spoke perhaps unkindly, “That machine sure looks like it’s seen better days.” She listened to his full speech but she wasn’t interested.

The salesman persisted. “Miss, you may not buy a Hoover today but you could help me out in a big way if you’d let me do a demonstration. I need one more to earn my bonus. We both win as you get a cleaned living room rug out of the deal.”

My mother hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry but no. The baby is asleep but thank you.”

I wanted to be seen and heard. “Yes, all the babies are asleep.” My mother looked at me sideways and slightly shook her head.

She said, “I would love to help you but we have a fairly new vacuum cleaner. And I really don’t need a cleaning at this time.”

I offered, “Good luck!”

“All the best of the season,” my mother said as she tried to shut the door but the salesman put his big booted foot in the way as a block.

My mother stared at him. He stared at her. After a long pause he said,“Just a signature then. I’m not asking for much. Look, lady, I need this real bad.”

My mother’s mouth hardened into a line. “Do I need to call my husband who’s upstairs to handle this?”

I added, wanting to help, “Really my father is out shopping but he will be home soon, very soon.”

My mother frowned at me. The man at the door smiled tightly as he glanced around the house with a gaze that lingered on the Christmas tree. Dressed only in a housedress, my mother shivered. I felt the air of cold December blow in towards us as the smell of shortbread, pine, and season good cheer wafted out and away into the early winter dusk.

*

Earlier that same Saturday, mid-morning. 

We, two sisters, waited in the hall for the stroll through the neighbourhood. We overheated in snowsuits, wool hats, mittens and scarves. The baby, strapped into the stroller and so heavily dressed against the cold, appeared as stiff as a log. My mother waltzed down the stairs from her bedroom in a cotton dress with a peter pan collar. She also wore a cinched black belt and kitten-heeled shoes. I was stunned and frightened. She could freeze to death.

She donned a light all-weather coat and wrapped her head of dark curls under a flowered kerchief.  “Just a moment!” she said as if we hadn’t already been waiting for an eternity. She slipped into the downstairs bathroom and returned with lips painted a fire engine red. Her beauty stunned me and my chest clutched.

My cheeks burned with wooly heat. She kneeled down in front of me, zipped up my snowsuit to under my chin and put up my hood. She looked me in the face and said, “Oh, sweetie. You look like your little heart is asleep.”

I wanted to cry. She talked to the younger ones in that tone and words. I was seven years old and a big girl now. Just as she protected me so did she need protection. I leaned towards her and pulled the zipper on her jacket up towards her chin. I tugged her head scarf down further on her forehead. Her mouth formed the O of surprise.

That was my first glimpse into a new world that held possibilities. I knew that I came from my mother and I was not my mother.

*

I’m sorry to say that already there are discrepancies and errors in my story. Surely my mother, who was a practical woman, who came from a prairie farm family, would not be wearing a housedress in below zero temperatures.

Also, time is definitely an issue.  Colour television didn’t get invented until the sixties and yet I’m sure that on the Fridays nights of the late ‘50s our darkened living room blazed with Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By 1960, our family would have been firmly planted in a different house and the said baby would have been running and screaming all over the place like the rest of us.

And the ages of the older brothers don’t match up. They would have been out on a weekend night looking for girls or a basketball game and a flask of gin, not doing stamp projects on the floor with too long adolescent legs.

To be more accurate, I was not exactly alone with my mother that Saturday afternoon before Christmas when the knock came at the door. Yes, my father was out. Distant hoots and hollers announced that the older brothers were playing street hockey with neighbourhood boys. The baby slept in the crib and my younger sister napped almost hidden by stuffed animals on the living couch. But, in the truest sense of the word, my mother and I were alone.

In my memory, my father was always away somewhere though I knew not where. The baby seemed to be forever quietly lying in the crib. In contrast, my mother, larger than life, in a peter pan collar or a canary-yellow sweater set, smiled a cheerful splash of red.

*

The salesman tried again. “Would it be possible to please come in for a demonstration even if you decide to not buy? As I said, I need one more. Isn’t that an easy thing? In the spirit of the holidays.” Both of their faces pulled even more tightly.

I grabbed my mother’s skirt. Should I call for my brothers to come in from the street? The police? Where was my father?

They stood like that, her hand firmly on the door, his foot solidly blocking against us.

Then, he said, “I need the money, lady. It’s a hard time of the year.”

It was only money he wanted! I hurried to the fireplace mantle to fetch my slotted piggybank. I handed the plastic toy with all my dimes, nickels and pennies to the man. Trying hard to sound like an adult, I said, “Please leave us alone. The babies are sleeping.”

My mother looked at me, then at the man, and said, “Oh, good God! Has it come to this?” Then she added, “On one thing you are right. It’s a hard time of the year. Really, we, the whole family, are getting ready go out and I need you to leave now.”

The man handed me back the savings bank. He sighed and took his foot out of the door. When the door was fully shut, my mother firmly locked it and without a word went directly to the Christmas tree, unplugging the lights. Then, from behind the closed door of the bathroom, I could hear the muffled sound of her crying.

*

To a young child a milk box was a wondrous contraption. Ours was built right into the kitchen wall with an exterior door for the delivery man to put in the bottles and an interior door for us to fetch them from the box into the fridge. Once when the family had forgotten their house key, I got to crawl through the milk box to unlock the back door.

Before my mother came out of the bathroom, I opened the box’s inner door and took the milk out bottle by bottle for the first time. The box’s ledge was my chin height so I had to be very careful. No point having my mother also crying over spilt milk.

What else could I do to help? The milk box was directly beside the back door.  I stood on the stool to lock the door as I had been taught. The room felt stifling with the oven heat and the jammed shut windows. I opened the outer milk box door as the family sometimes did to cool the room, then jarred the inner door also open slightly to let the cold air through. When I heard my mother coming, I pretended to roll cookie dough on the floured surface of the table.

My mother placed the next prepared tray of shortbread into the oven, then pulled the ironing board into the kitchen. She was in a mood and turned abruptly turned the radio off with a look that said no talking now. This time I did not watch as she went through the steps of setting up her ironing ritual. The room was quiet except for the electrical sounds of the oven humming and the iron preparing. She was breaking the rules. I was almost close enough to touch the blouse she was ironing.

Only because of this quiet were we able to hear the footsteps on the gravel driveway. Only because of the steps on the gravel did we see the slightest turning of the back door knob, the door which was locked. No one called hello. I thought to yell but my mother put her finger to her lips. Wait!

Then, the milk box beside my mother moved. The door on the exterior wall was pulled open wide and a large male hand reached through the inside milk window and up towards the back door’s lock.

An arm. A unknown coat sleeve. Not the brothers, not my father, not a neighbour. In a split second decision my mother raised the hot iron and knocked it directly against the back of the hand.

I remember no scream but there must have been one. There must have also have been the sound of stumbling on the gravel. What I recall is only more and more silence except for the yelps of boys playing street hockey in the distance.

My mother unplugged the iron and put it on the counter to cool. The room was filled with a strange smell like something mysterious and sizzling. She placed the ironing board back in the cupboard and went into the bathroom again closing the door against me. By the time she came out, the shortbread cookies had burnt to a crisp.

*

We did not call the police. That Saturday afternoon my father returned home, the brothers finished up the hockey game, and the nappers woke up. My mother told the family over a roast beef dinner about the vacuum cleaner salesman and my piggy bank and how I had saved the day like Davy Crockett. We all laughed. We talked of Christmas.

My mother and I did not talk of the attempted break-in for many years. Much later in life when I asked my mother about the iron and the hand, she denied it ever having happened and what could I say for it was only she and I who were there. Most recently she has insisted that she  never ironed during the Walt Disney show. Too distracting in such a busy household, she said. She did remember the vacuum cleaner salesman at the door and  laughed as one does at such family stories.

The only sense I can possibly make of that day, those times, is as the creation of a young child with a wild imagination. Yet, sometimes around Christmas when I am on a bus in my hometown or even on a subway in a strange city, I will look at the hands of the elderly men for an iron burn. If I were to ever see such a curious scar, I may not ask the man about it for fear of my responsibility or even guilt. After all, it was I who had left the milk doors open.

I do not iron, but that December day, if I had been older or stronger, I might have done such a necessary act myself to protect my beautiful mother.