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IRON is a four-letter word
by Bettye R. Gibson

Where does one start when trying to go back more than sixty years to recall events from one’s past? Maybe I should just start at the present and muddle back as far as I can remember.

For the present I am trying to keep busy with housework, which I detest, and my house is proof of that—in glorious living color. I love a clean house, love the order and the smell of everything clean, but I don’t like what it takes to get there. Besides, a clean house is just like ironing, another of my highly detested household duties -- it has to be done over and over for clothing to stay clean and crisp.

Ah, speaking of ironing, I can remember standing in a chair at my mother’s ironing board, ironing my daddy’s handkerchiefs ever so carefully. Mother allowed me to do that “fun chore” to keep me occupied, to give me ironing experience and, besides, it was not too bad if I slightly scorched one of daddy’s handkerchiefs. He was a carpenter and probably got a freshly ironed handkerchief dirty right after he left for work. I remember that because the ironing board did not have legs. Mother propped it up over the backs of two straight chairs.

The board was covered with several old sheets that were worn and scorched. The iron was an electric one but not a steam iron. Those had not been invented yet, I think. Those were the days of starching clothes, sprinkling them with water, rolling the garment up in a loose ball, and then waiting several hours to iron them. My aunt told us that to freeze the sprinkled clothes for a day or two made ironing the items even better. (Of course, months later when she was rummaging through her freezer for a mess of peas or creamed corn, she often came up with oddly shaped frozen items that turned out to be my uncle’s shirts or a cousin’s skirt.)

I was so good at ironing handkerchiefs that I graduated to ironing pillowcases and other flat items. I can vividly remember what an excellent ironer my mother was; she had a flair for getting all the wrinkles out and making curtains and dresses look so pretty after she hung them on a hangar to cool and dry.

My ironing days were put on hold for several weeks when I accidentally ironed a solid blister across the entire length of my midriff. I was standing at the ironing board one hot summer day wearing a pair of cotton shorts and a halter top—products of my mother’s sewing talents. (Gee, she was good at everything a true Southern woman was supposed to know how to do -- cooking, sewing, ironing, making jelly, canning, and working in the yard -- even milking our two cows and slopping the hogs.)

Despite her dexterity at all things domestic, she could not stop me from dragging the red hot iron right across my naked stomach just above the belly button as I ironed a handkerchief. I guess I was day dreaming, as I am still prone to do when I have to do some laborious household chore. Did I get a jolt of reality as the pain shot through my body! I screamed and screamed, and Mother came running. She covered the burn with butter or Vaseline or, probably, fresh cream from the top of a gallon of milk in the refrigerator, the common treatment for burns in the 1940's. After the heat finally left the burn, I proudly showed my badge of courage to all who came to visit. I remember the burn took several weeks to heal and the scab to be totally gone; and was I glad that it was summertime and I could continue to wear halter tops!

Reverting to the present, when I iron now, which is only done in dire emergencies, I spend lots of time daydreaming. I must actually put my enemies on the surface of the board and straighten them out along with any problems I might be facing at the time. My husband has watched my ironing for long periods of time and he often asks who I'm attacking this time. He said he can tell by the expressions on my face that I am really taking it out on someone!

I do remember several years ago I was ironing away and reliving the events of the past week and recalling why I was so mad at my school principal. She would not allow me to take some field trip or do something out of the ordinary, something I was prone to request frequently. I gasped as I realized I had literally melted the back of the collar (good old polyester) of a brand new blouse. Oh well, I wore it for years as no one could see the melted fabric under the collar. It was too good and too new to send away in the Salvation Army cast-offs.

It seems I have been ironing all my life -- a Sunday afternoon ritual until I had foot problems about ten years ago and could hardly stand to put my weight on the floor. That is when I discovered that the local cleaners did a wonderful, if expensive, job of doing up a week’s worth of my husband’s dress shirts. Once discovering the cleaners, I never went back to that weekend ironing routine.

And thoughts of ironing bring another memory.

Early in our marriage, while living in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I found ironing to be a big chore -- all items still had to be starched, sprinkled and ironed. I HATED IT. While talking with one of my teacher friends, I learned of a young black girl who would come to our apartment to do ironing. I somehow managed to find a few spare dollars in our tight budget to hire her to do my ironing. Although I have long since forgotten her name, she was a true gift from heaven. She came right after my husband left for work on Saturdays, and she could do all my ironing in about three hours. My husband did not believe in hiring someone for help with housework, although he had no real, valid reason for this. Even his mother told me to find some one to help me! This ironing wonder woman was very efficient, and she was gone before my husband returned at noon. I always felt guilty for hiring the ironer without his knowledge, but I really needed the assistance.

One Saturday at noon, my husband returned home and looked up at the rack hanging over the closet door and said “Well, I can see that the ironing girl has been working hard this morning.” I gasped and said, “How did you know I hired someone?” He laughed and said, “I didn’t, but I'm glad you confessed.”

We both got a good laugh out of my blooper, and I continued to have an ironer for the next several months until one Saturday she just did not show up. As she had no telephone, I could not contact her and I had to go back to doing the ironing myself. I never stopped wishing for someone else to show up who could iron, but that never happened.

Several years ago, I had a friend who had a friend who was in dire financial straits. It was suggested that I let her do some of my ironing so the friend could earn extra money. I took the shirts to my friend’s house and had ironing done for several weeks. The lady (whom I never met) did a great job, and I paid her a dollar per item for her ironing. That situation ended abruptly and without explanation also.

Nearly a decade ago I decided I needed the "right iron" to make my chore more pleasant, and I took a big chunk of cash and purchased the "magic" Rowenta iron, which happened to be on sale. Alas, it is not magic and ironing is still a chore, but I have discovered that taking the clothes out of the dryer and hanging them up to finish drying saves many garments from needing the iron.

Also, a few weeks ago I purchased a new wrinkle remover, which works fairly well when sprayed on a piece of clothing, followed by a smoothing out of the wrinkles.

Iron will forever be a four-letter word for me, but I did discover that lightning will not fry me if I wear wrinkled clothing. In fact, wrinkles are more in vogue than they used to be, and wearing linen in the heat and humidity of a Southern summer with wrinkles everywhere is considered by some Southern women to be chic -- maybe shabby chic -- but still chic . . . and a whole lot cooler than those miserable synthetic fabrics.


Bettye wirtes: "I am a l959 graduate of Cleveland (Mississippi) High School, graduated from Delta State in l963 with a B.A. degree in History and English, and received a Master's in history from DSU in l968. I am married to Garland Gibson, a graduate of Cleveland High School and DSU. He is a banker, and I retired in 2000 from the Jonesboro School System after 30 years of teaching (34 years total). I presently teach American history, American Government, and World History classes for Arkansas State University. So much for retirement. We have two daughters and two GRAND daughters and one GRAND son."

More from Bettye Rozier Gibson at USADEEPSOUTH!
Southern Comfort Recipes
Chicken and Dumplings
My Own Amazing Grace


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