Warm thing of beauty

Bringing harmony to chaos with a triangle of hot metal

When I was 8 years old, a woman named Mary Cannon taught me how to iron. Mary was my baby sitter, and I think she did the ironing because she felt sorry for my mother, who maintained a neurotic ritual of preparing to iron, but never actually doing it. Instead, she would dampen this mass of indistinguishable cotton and then lose interest. Before we knew it, my dad’s short-sleeve, white, button-down collar shirts were mildewed and would all have to be returned to the washer to begin the process again. Once she even threw the ironing away.

For Mary, it seemed easier. In the late summer afternoons, when I was playing on the swing set in our backyard, I could see her through the screen door. She would turn on the radio, and then I could hear her singing along to “Johnny B. Goode” as she transformed each shirt from a mash of wrinkled cotton into a smooth, warm thing of beauty. She brought harmony to the chaos with that little triangular piece of hot metal. From my tenuous position on the crossbar of the rusty swing set, it always looked like more fun to be in the kitchen with Mary.

“Will you show me how to do it?” I asked one afternoon.

“Oh, honey, you don’t need to know how to do this for a long time,” she said, but she pulled my little red step stool up to the ironing board and set another of my dad’s shirts in front of me.

“Now don’t just jump into it,” she said. “There’s an order to the whole thing.” And then she taught me about ironing first the collar, then the yoke, the sleeves, the right side, the back and then the left side. Finally, she would press the collar back down, button it, and hang it carefully.

Now, 50 years later, I think of that every Sunday afternoon when I go to my closet and choose five outfits to wear in the upcoming week. Then, like Mary, I turn on some music, like Dave Brubeck or Peter Gabriel, and lose myself in the order and routine of the task.

What draws me to that ironing board each Sunday is, in part, the ritual. But more than anything, it’s one of the few activities I engage in that balances a bit of thinking about the future and a lot of being in the moment.

I may be worried about a meeting I have to attend on Wednesday, but when I meticulously smooth the fibers of my shirt and press them with the hot iron, things change. I can feel the comforting steam of the iron, I can hear “Shaking the Tree” in the background, and I feel calmer, more ready for the week. A little, I imagine, like Mary must have felt when she worked her way through the complexities of my mother’s mess and brought order again to all of us.