Ironing with Mom

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My mother ironed everything. Socks, underwear, sheets, even towels succumbed to her persnickety need for neatness. She was the epitome of the old grammatical joke: Being a mother, my ironing board is always open.

Such are the dangers of dangling modifiers and an obsession with housework.

For years, every Sunday evening I unfolded my own ironing board and laid out a stack of shirts for the week. When the iron was primed and hot, the first shirtsleeve spread on the board, I would dial my mother’s number. I spent the next hour ironing as I talked to her. Listened would be a more accurate way to put it—listened to the minutiae of her week, amusing anecdotes about the grandchildren, her complaints about ailments and doctors’ visits, the compliments she received from strangers and friends alike about how young she looked, the inevitable recounting of how a complete stranger asked if she was from Boston (it must have happened once a month). “How did she know I’m from Bahstahn?” she would ask innocently.

How, indeed.

The cord snaked across my ironing board with each movement, as if the iron and not the phone were the real source of the connection.

My mother taught me to iron—to start with the sleeves, then move on to the back of the shirt before finishing with the front, so that the most important part is the last gone over and therefore the safest from inadvertent wrinkles. She taught me to drape the shirt over the square part of the board and ignore the useless pointed end.

Ironing not only gave me something to do while we talked. It also felt like something we shared. Aside from family business and a few favorite movies, my mother and I didn’t have all that much in common. We didn’t need to have much in common, other than love and time.

The last time I combined ironing with our conversation was an evening last spring. The next morning, she awoke with severe stomach pain and was brought to the hospital. I raced to see her on the next flight. She was 97 years old, so I knew that any incident could be the last. And this one was.

I got there in time to have a good chat, though she was heavily medicated and didn’t say very much. She fell asleep an hour or so later, and never woke up. At 6:00 the following afternoon, she left us.

The next day, after she’d gone, I woke into a new world. It was like waking up to find that the sky was yellow, that up was down and left was right. This, I thought, is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not the universe in which I have always lived.

On the day my mother died, I hardly left her side. It wasn’t Terms of Endearment or Brideshead Revisited or any of the other deathbed images Hollywood had engraved upon my memory. She slept soundly throughout the day, as her organs began to fail one by one. It wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t beautiful. It was life.

Until it was death.

I held her hand through it all, my own hand at the end of the sleeve of a wrinkled shirt I had pulled out of a hastily packed suitcase. I remember feeling oddly self-conscious about the shirt. And for the rest of the week, as I continued to live out of that suitcase, it seemed wrong—vain—to bother ironing any of its contents. I spent the week in wrinkled shirts, shirts I didn’t even launder between wearings.

We inherit unexpected things, some genetically, others that worm their way into our personalities by less predictable means. I have my father’s hairline, my mother’s smile, his codependent streak, her fear of change. The cleanliness, the obsession with those hard creases as she ironed, was perhaps a way of exerting control in a world that otherwise seemed beyond her grasp. It was, I suppose, a way of fending off the inevitable. If she could keep her home in order, that alone was testament to her health, her usefulness. It was her edge against time.

So what is it, then, for me?

What I learned on my own, on those Sunday nights with the phone’s headset against my ear, was the meditative quality of ironing. There’s a Zen to the repetitive back-and-forth of the iron against the fabric, the intermittent hiss of steam. Or maybe these qualities came out for me because I had ritualized the activity, because the regularity of all this is as close as I come these days to church.

I no longer go to an office every day, so T-shirts have become my stock in trade and there’s less ironing to do. But a month or so after she died, I had an event to attend for which I needed something a little dressier. I screeched open the ironing board for the first time in weeks and set it up by the window. It felt like the first trip to the gym after time away, muscles just remembering movements that used to be routine. But it was the silence that struck me most: no headset in my ear, no one telling me about her day while I smoothed the wrinkles out of an errant sleeve.

I finished the shirt quickly and put it on, still warm, and went off to whatever event it was, I can no longer remember. But I didn’t put the ironing board away. It stood open in a corner of the bedroom for days. It felt like a shrine of some sort. I was disinclined to disturb it, yet afraid to pick up the iron again, as if that act were testament to a conclusion I didn’t feel fully inclined to embrace: that life goes on.

I’ve heard people say they can’t go on after a loved one’s death. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to go on. Irrational and myopic as it may be, such feelings are a testament to the bonds we make as humans.

It’s been just over a year since my mother’s death. So I guess I’ve survived. But not by forgetting. I’ve survived by remembering.

And this weekly chore—her favorite chore—is part of that. Even if I don’t need the shirts, I need the ritual. Maybe the answer is, every Sunday evening, to lay out a shirt and press it flat. And listen closely. Listen closely, even if now all I hear is a puff of steam.

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