Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Haven’t ironed a man’s shirt in over five years.
I found the task surprisingly pleasant one day recently.
“Why is he wearing a polo shirt,” I asked about my one and only son-in-law, Bud, as he left for work. Jamie, my daughter, head-nodded toward the ironing board upright in the kitchen, piled high with wrinkledness. She works and is planning a wedding; she’s excused from housekeeper duties these days.
I stay with these two often. Usually when I socialize with my Pauma Valley friends who rarely visit me in the city. If I want to see them, I need to drive to the country where my daughter also lives.
As soon as the second of the duo departed for her job, I headed for the stack of clean but un-pressed garments I recognized as my son-in-law’s work wardrobe. Short sleeve, button down, one-hundred percent cotton shirts. Some version of blue. A large accumulation of office casual wear which often does double duty at construction sites.
A shining pyramidal shaped appliance, my daughter’s iron, stood on the counter next to a water container meant to supply steam for my morning chore. A quick once over acquainted me with the fabric selection dial and the neon blue light indicator. I opted for Cotton and plugged in the Sunbeam Steammaster 1400 Watt Large Anti-drip, Nonstick Stainless Steel model with retractable cord, which wasn’t retracted at the moment. Apparently my daughter had good intentions. Or perhaps she ironed her outfit on the way out the door earlier in the morning.
After I plugged it in, I filled the iron’s water chamber. Steam began to spew softly from the openings in the highly polished chrome bottom plate of the instrument of my self-appointed domestic duty—a sleek brushed silver construction as advanced in design as my friend, Gary’s, new Atomic Silver Lexus. Not sure whether his auto’s advanced technological features or those of this souped-up household appliance are more difficult to master.
At least I’m not saddled with a flat iron (often called a sad iron—or sadiron—which is an old word for solid) like my great grandmother. Edwina. She, too, was of solid stock. To be efficient, she needed at least two of the cast iron triangles on the go together—one in use, one reheating. Hers was a hot and arduous job.
I began to feel right at home, actually got my groove on; my hips moved back and forth to the sort of boring sounds of Ed Sheeran’s soft rock music emanating from the nearby expensive Bluetooth speaker. Hard to calculate how many shirts, blouses, dresses, sheets, and pillowcases I have ironed through the years. On this sunny morning, there was both a comfort to the angled handle of Jamie’s iron, teal color like the other accents, and a small feeling of power as my sweeping arm motions caused the iron to glide rhythmically across the surface of the textile. It wasn’t long before I felt my body sway to the movement of the iron and my feet two-stepped in time to Jamie’s Spotify playlist. Definitely a rhythm to ironing done well.
Bud’s shirt collection is one of classic fit. Most men I know with the exception of my tall and lean college boy grandson, slim-fit Calvin, are classic or traditional fit. Buds are mostly Eddie Bauer brand in shades of blue; a tinge or more of blue in every shirt—solids, paisley, checked, striped and two navy and white windowpane check, exactly alike. A few Hawaiian flavored Reyn Spooners, but all the same style. Men are easily pleased when it comes to fashion, it seems.
Time to refill the water. I love the way a hot iron spatters and hisses as filtered water is poured into the spout and it kicks into gear at the ready to smooth all wrinkles. The sound of steam emanating from the iron is a soft whishing sound like a yoga exhale through your closed mouth. If I remember correctly, they call that an Ujjayi breath. To me, it’s more like I imagine the sound of the Nike “Whoosh.”
I take care to let it settle before I start again; definitely don’t want any water spots on Bud’s shirts. He’s a bit of a perfectionist.
There is a fresh, familiar smell as the heated triangle lands on the one-hundred percent cotton. No polyester for the men in my life, so this smell is also a melancholy one. Takes me back to my dad’s crisp white dress shirts which my mom learned to press on her modern mangle, a Christmas gift from my father one year. He had presented the behemoth white appliance, wide as a refrigerator and counter high, in concern for her well-being. Mom’s right arm was compromised following a lengthy bout with breast cancer and a mastectomy. Very much a man, my dad figured he could “fix” the problem in this way.
What is it about men thinking an appliance is a Christmas present?
The Iron-rite Ironer or mangle which became a household name among appliances during the forties and fifties, promised ”to take homemakers away from the nerve-racking method of lifting, pushing and pulling a heavy hot hand iron back and forth hundreds of times to complete an ironing.” This was all before permanent-press clothing. Basically, it was a mechanical laundry aid consisting of two rollers in a sturdy frame, connected by cogs and powered by electricity.
Ours attracted all the women in the Greenway Parks neighborhood of Dallas. In her afternoon demonstration, Mom, hair perfectly permed, sat comfortably gently gliding a tablecloth through the top roller and heating plate. She basked in the admiring glances of her friends.
My maiden voyage operating the mangle was every bit as terrifying as my first time behind the wheel of a car. I mastered it faster than the Oldsmobile station wagon. Feeding linens into Mom’s mangle is where I learned to love freshly pressed sheets.
The novelty wore off quickly for both Mom and me. For the general homemaker public too, I guess. Today a rarity in homes, mangles have become an essential feature of commercial or large-scale laundries. Should you want one, William Sonoma offers a contemporary version, user friendly, for $2,049.95.
As I made my way through the pile of Bud’s shirts, I actually stopped down and “stayed in the moment” of this simple household chore. The cool of the morning had turned into a glorious warm day. I took a break to refill my coffee cup and soak up a bit of sunshine on the deck. Back in my daughter’s kitchen, I removed my sweatshirt and returned my focus to the task at hand, a simple task so many women before me had performed. I thought about the process.
The hardest step ironing a man’s shirt may be the first, which is unbuttoning the two miniscule buttons on the button-down collar. Good way to decimate a manicure. And then they need to be re-buttoned at the end. After all, I was attempting to be a full service laundress on this day.
My process? I begin with the collar. One swipe toward the center on the backside from the right followed by an identical swipe motion from the left. A quick turnover of the garment and I repeat on the front side of the collar. The swiping left and right is somewhat like what I do on my iPhone when my kids and grandkids admonish “Close your apps!” My Home Economics teacher at Rusk Junior High School on Inwood Drive in Dallas, whose name I have forgotten, cautioned “go inward toward the label from the tips of the collar. If there are any wrinkles, you want them in the back.” My grade suffered in that eighth grade ironing and sewing section when the pocket appeared lower center, six inches below my belly button, instead of at the right hand near the waist of my holiday kitchen apron.
Next I remove the shirt from the board, hold it up into the air by the collar and then replace it on the ironing board with the right side front lined out in front of me. It irons easily, no wrinkles. But the buttonhole placket is stubborn. Whatever they put in no-iron models, they triple up in the pocket too. Requires some real finesse to remove the bunching. Creases put into fabric by a steaming hot iron are almost impossible to remove. And by the way, if today’s garments are wrinkle-free, why am I ironing?
No matter. I continue. I shift the garment and iron the next section and shift to the expansive back part. My son-in-law has an expansive back. Up from the shirt tail to the yoke and back. It takes me four full rotations to stamp all wrinkles out of the back section, which will wrinkle the moment he sits.
I pause for a moment to breathe deeply and utter a soft sigh. I can still see clearly the way my husband smoothed the back pleat of his dress shirt; leaning forward to keep the pleat flat, bent slightly at the waist, his knees spread eagle to keep his pants from falling to his ankles before he could tuck it into his slacks with care. The Marine Corps fostered that. Like his grandfather before him, he was a dandy! (A dandy, historically, is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of self.
For today’s fashion-conscious guy, Modern Gentleman Magazine recently wrote
“Modern gentlemen are returning to many of the elements of dandy fashion that largely fell by the wayside over the past decade or so. The modern man isn’t content to merely get dressed each morning; he embraces fashion as a form of self-expression and even as an extension of self.”
I smile (and keep ironing) realizing that my son-in-law is also a dandy!
As Speckles, my grand dog rolls over on the rug near the fireplace, I rotate the shirt and begin my quest to make this last part ripple less. I repeat my process on the right side; no buttonhole placket but I navigate the pointed tip of the iron in and around the small white buttons. Also, no pocket on this side. At this point, I am done. I must start with the right front and end with the left front. Doing it any other way would be like riding backwards on Amtrak.
At long last I arrive at the one remaining shirt in the pile and I am confounded for a moment. Not Eddie Bauer, not Spooner, but a Nordstrom brand shirt, American flag blue. Similar in style to the others, but this one has a third small collar button, this one in the back center. Blue, third eye. Can’t help it, my head goes to Shiva, the important Hindu deity who is often portrayed BLUE and has a third eye, his symbol of spiritual wisdom and knowledge. At this point my son-in-law’s stature elevates.
I am honored to iron Bud’s shirts. Bud’s blue shirts.
After all he is my go-to-guy anytime an annoying warning signal light goes on the dashboard of my car. Last week, he filled my tires with the proper amount of air and the week before he replaced the battery in my key fob. I am beyond fortunate to have this strong young man in my life; in my daughter’s life; in my granddaughter’s life. Ironing his shirts is the least I can do for this button-down kind of guy.
I ironed thirteen in all, which should get him through the work week and two weekends. And this session at the ironing board will last me another five years.
That’s a good one Marilyn. I’ve vaguely remember ironing shirts but it’s not in my repertoire now. Jan
What a nice way to start my morning; sipping my coffee and reading your latest musing.
I love your writing. What a gift/talent/hard-worked-for-skill to be able to touch people with your words.
Ironing can be very zen-like indeed. Wow, you capture simple moments and express thoughts and feelings beautifully. PB
Marilyn thank you for bringing it home. I love the smell of steam rising off the ironing board on cotton linens. Nothing better than sliding into bed on freshly ironed sheets....favorite part.. no buttons to work around...thank you for sharing your writing and story telling. AMS
Ohhh Marilyn that was just great, my mom had a ironing mangle. I never learned the art of using it! Just love your words, can’t wait for the book!! ❤️ Jeannine
I occasionally iron, or at least "press" things, but all those shirts? Truly a labor of love, I'd say! Chris
You even made ironing sound downright poetic! Amazing. Loved it! Carolyn
Your blogs make my day! I actually like to iron; it's a real gratification to take that wadded up piece of cotton and turn it into a crisp, wrinkle free object. Without a mangle, it is an effort to iron a king sized top cotton sheet but, oh, how good it feels to crawl into bed (I must admit that I suffer through an unironed bottom sheet)!
Thanks for your always thoughtful, uplifting, or funny tales. Nell
Enjoyed your blog. You certainly get into the itness of it. My license plate has read "herenow" (long before the PBS show) and I try to be in the moment, but not very good at it.
I could relate with your actions - once on a visit to my daughter's - ironed all the clothes in the basket and organzied the kitchen drawers (with permission). Just what you do for your busy kids.
Great writing (especially details). I bet your tours are enjoyable.
I hope Bud appreciated all your hard work!!! And I hope Jamie doesn’t come to expect it every time you visit!! I really enjoyed reading your musing about ironing all 13 blue shirts!! I don’t think I could be quite as poetic about ironing, even though you made it sound quite appealing. I don’t like ironing, to tell the truth. I’m from the school of “Get that shirt out the dryer and hang it up fast!” I also “press” John’s golf shirts on the bed before hanging them up. I’ll do almost anything to avoid getting out the iron. I’m a lazy slob, for sure. I did have to be quite firm when John suggested I should iron his jeans. What?!! Never!! Jill
I feel like I was just now chatting away with you at your daughter's, while you ironed and I sipped a glass of Pinot Grigio - I actually would prefer a glass of Pinot Noir but I don't think that red wine goes with ironing - such an irony. RS