My mother taught me how to iron. And how to break big jobs into little pieces to avoid being overwhelmed. She would leave a list of tasks on the kitchen counter on a sturdy piece of paper with a pencil stuck through it so it stood up nice and smart and I would be sure to see it. She would write bathroom sink – 15 cents, toilet – 20 cents, kitchen floor mop – 25 cents, wax another 10 cents. If she had promised $5 to clean the whole house, I’d have laid down on my bed in defeat. She knew this about me. About herself. Being overwhelmed was always something right around the corner. It was paralyzing so we wanted to avoid it at all costs.
Her ironing was a thing of beauty. She ironed on Tuesday. That’s because she did the wash on Monday. So, when she took things in off the clothesline, she folded things that weren’t ironed, like underwear and t-shirts, and then sprinkled the rest with water using a Coke bottle with a sprinkler cork. Then, she would roll up each to-be-ironed piece of clothing and then stack all the rolls in a laundry basket. Then, she would turn on the Army McCarthy hearings, pull out one roll at a time, and iron away. She ironed handkerchiefs, pillowcases (but not sheets), my father’s dress shirts, which were really his appliance salesman shirts, all our dresses, and my brother’s corduroy pants. She wore a shirtwaist while ironing, with buttons down the front and a fabric belt.
My mother also taught me just to start supper without necessarily knowing what I would cook. When I was older, long after the Army McCarthy hearings, and I called her at work after school to ask what to start for supper, she would say, “Well, peel some potatoes.” So, I would peel potatoes and set them to boiling and then trust, like she did, that somehow the rest of dinner would take shape. It always did, although there was a fair amount of redundancy. We loved hamburgers in mushroom soup an awful lot. I took her peel potatoes instruction like I did her task list. Don’t get overwhelmed. Just do one thing. Start.
There are other things my mother taught me that are much harder to describe. I learned to turn down the bed for someone coming back from a run to the emergency room. I learned to ask, “What’s the matter?” and never get an answer. I learned that she wouldn’t come to events at school, but she would stay up all night sewing a Pilgrim costume for me. I learned how to get up before dawn to roast a Thanksgiving turkey to load in the trunk of the car and drive three hours to our hometown. I learned that she could heal me by stroking my forehead with her soft hands. I learned to be melancholy. Wistful. And to wear jeans rolled up.
I ironed a red shirt yesterday. It made me miss my mother.