Today is Wednesday, ironing day. Mother washed on Monday, folded and starched on Tuesday, and ironed on Wednesday. I sometimes wonder if I’ve time-travelled; it was such a different world. She began her ironing just as “Our Gal Sunday” came on the radio and ironed on through “Stella Dallas”, “The Guiding Light” and “The Brighter Day.” I would sometimes listen with her to these stories of women whose lives were so different from ours, and she would talk about how some day she would travel. Just go all over the country with no plan in mind.
She sometimes had help with the ironing from Caroline, a black woman whose family sharecropped on my grandfather’s farm, but only if Mother was physically in the house. Caroline believed with all her heart that our house was haunted by a Civil War Captain who hated black people. But he stayed out of sight if white folks werearound. Today this seems a little alarming, but as a child in those days, it seemed perfectly sensible. No one thought the less of Caroline for it. And certainly we never questioned the reality of ghosts. Nowadays she would be on medication for panic attacks. Not to belittle panic attacks; they’re real. We just had a different way of dealing with them then. Admittedly less effective, but much more colorful.
I recently bought a new iron, bringing, I’m embarrassed to say, my iron inventory to six. The new one is cordless, and made especially for quilting. I use it for piecing along with its teeny tiny “wand iron” cousin for nooks and crannies. But I also have two big honking steam irons for down and dirty ironing (to be avoided), an ironing press for large flat items (I don’t think I have any) and my personal favorite, the vertical iron for drapes which has never been out of its box. Really.
My mother had one iron and its cord had been wrapped several times with electrical tape. The idea of replacing it never came up. I had no clue how hard she worked with so little support until long after I left home. We talked about this after she left the farm and her life became more comfortable. But she dismissed it as just the way things were. And her life was so much easier, she reminded me, than my grandmother’s. Case in point: Grandmother used a flatiron that she heated on the wood stove. I also have two of these. I use them as bookends.
I never remember hearing the women in my family complain. Maybe they did. Maybe that’s what their quilting bees were really all about. But they never complained to the children. This might seem duplicitous, maybe smack of denial. But I’m pretty sure it was not delusional but intentional. They could not have been unaware of the harsh realities of their lives. Workdays were long and physically demanding. The livlihood of the family depended on the right mix of sunshine and rain, heat and cold, to support the crops. Loss of children to childhood disease was not uncommon. The closest neighbors were often miles away. And always there was the threat of losing sons to war.
Maybe these were coping skills, passed down from their mothers. Or perhaps they shielded us because they wanted us to enjoy childhood free from as much pain as possible. Or like mothers since time began, maybe they simply wanted to protect their children. No matter the reason, I’m amazed at their strength and resiliency.
Oh, and btw, about my mother – she got her trip across the country. It lasted 10 years.