I (would rather not) stand here ironing


Melissa Stagnaro

In theory, the process of employing heat, steam and an iota of pressure to remove wrinkles from fabric with the repetitive movement of a weighted tool across said fabric, is an easy one. Why, then, do I find it so distasteful?

Most mornings, as I am cursing the wrinkles which stubbornly refuse to relax out of whatever garment I’m trying to press, there is a moment when I question the whole exercise. I mean, are wrinkles such a bad thing? But then I think of going about my day looking like I’d just rolled out of bed, and, heaving a heavy sigh, I get back to work.

Ironing is one of my least favorite tasks every morning. The only thing I resent more is having to drag my sorry behind out of my comfortable bed in the first place.

Without fail, as I stand there ironing, I think of Mr. Turecek – the young junior high English teacher who took over when our regular 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Fisher, went on sabbatical. (At least I think that’s how we ended up with him. It’s been about two decades, and I’m afraid to admit it’s all getting a bit fuzzy.)

Now that I look back, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Turecek was probably a first year teacher, or at least close to it. His exuberance for the written word and his ambitious curriculum was almost entirely over our heads. Not that we weren’t smart, mind you. Just that we were preoccupied with what we considered to be the task at hand – torturing the poor man any way we could.

By rights, we should have had Mr. Fisher, we thought. And we tried to console ourselves for our loss by keeping track of the number of times Mr. Turecek said “ummm” during each class period, and meticulously documenting his daily attire.

Despite his best efforts, he was no match for us, I’m afraid. But I think it was more our loss than his. Because, in retrospect, I can see what an amazing teacher he probably would have been if we’d given him half the chance.

One of the first assignments I remember him giving us was to read “I Stand Here Ironing,” the short story which is perhaps the most well known of Tillie Olsen’s work. It was completely beyond our adolescent ken. It wasn’t until years later, when I re-read the short tale with a writing group I was involved, that I realized how highly Mr. Turecek must have thought of us to introduce that particular piece to us at that age. Alas, it was lost on us.

Perhaps if I had been able to glean more from it at the time, I would have a different appreciation for the act of ironing. But rather than the  contemplative exercise it appears to be for the tale’s protagonist, I’ve never really seen ironing as an opportunity to reflect on my life or life in general. It’s always been just a chore.

Until I turned 18, my mom was kind enough to do what little ironing I required for me. Probably because she knew that, if she didn’t, I would be perfectly happy to walk around looking like I’d just rolled out of bed. I know that she was petrified that when I went off to college I would indeed walk around perpetually wrinkled, thus realizing her worst nightmare.

She needn’t have worried, though. Because I, like all good mammals, am able to adapt.

The first step was paring down my wardrobe to the bare necessities, which basically consisted of jeans, sweatshirts and an ever accumulating supply of Manhattan College t-shirts. For the rest, I learned to employ whatever techniques I could to avoid ironing.

First, there was the old throw-it-back-in-the-dryer approach, which had worked well at home. Unfortunately, this was more expensive in college where laundry facilities were at (and charged) a premium.

Then I befriended (and later roomed with) Liz, whose parents owned a dry cleaning business on Long Island, and thus was born my “don’t worry, dry clean it!” phase. This worked brilliantly until Junior year when both Lizzie and I became RAs – in separate buildings.

Using the resources around me (i.e. the residents who lived on my floor), I developed a new strategy. That of seeking out the most anal retentive people I could find who would agree to iron my clothes for me, just so they wouldn’t have to look at my wrinkled self. It worked like a charm.

I had a whole suite full of engineering students who fit the bill. I’d known them since freshman year, and they were incredibly nice guys. Even if they did buy spray starch by the case. (I’m just guessing on that one, but I do remember one of them used to iron his boxer shorts.)

I didn’t start out by trying to connive them into doing my ironing for me. It just kind of happened. At first I’d just ask them if I could borrow their iron and ironing board. (I’d never seen the need to invest in one myself.) But then when I would show back up at their door to return it, wearing the item I’d tried to press, they would roll their eyes and demand I take it off. And not in a re-payment kind of way.

After a while, we dropped the pretense. I stopped attempting to iron anything, and they stopped pretending to be horrified by my lack of domestic skills. No, wait. They weren’t pretending on that count.

Any way, it worked for all parties. My clothes were freshly pressed for job interviews and events, and they didn’t have to put their iron through the anguish of being wielded by an amateur.

Ahhh, those were the days.

These were the thoughts that were going through my head this morning as I stood there, well, ironing.

Maybe Tillie Olsen’s words weren’t entirely lost on me after all.