‘I stand here ironing’

One day, when I was ten, maybe twelve, my older sister suggested she would teach me to iron.

‘I don’t want to learn to iron’, I said. ‘ If I know how to iron I’ll have to do it.’

My sister taught me anyhow, even as I had learned to become a master avoider of most things domestic.

Then for years as an adult, I ironed when my children were young and at school. Every Sunday, listening to my favourite music on the radio or on a CD, I pulled the iron through the pile of school dresses, my husband’s shorts, my own blouses until one day I had had enough.

But not before I enjoyed the image of Tillie Olson who wrote a memorable short story: ‘I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.’

The story stays with me, the story of a mother overwrought by her child from whom she has become estranged. A mother who wanders back in her thoughts to the time when that daughter was tiny and of how this mother had needed to work and to leave her child in care, and the thoughts of so many mothers of my generation and today who worry that they are  bad mothers.

‘You think because 1am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?’

Whenever I ironed I could reason to myself I was a good mother. Or good enough.

As if ironing is ever enough. Ironing and housework and getting food onto the table. I have been inadequate in all these dimensions; unlike my older sister who raised her children largely on her own after her husband left her for another woman when her youngest was not yet born and her oldest was a mere twelve or thirteen.

A sorry tale we hear often and my sister has struggled on minimum money with five children to build a world that is rich and filled with people. Her children all grown now and finding their own ways in the world, several with children of their own.

I write the words above and think how clichéd they sound. There is so much more to the stories of my sister and her children as there is so much more to the story of my children and I am restricted here to the safe passages, the generalised passages, the order and neatness  when I would like to write about all the things I cannot say.

My sister and her children, my own children would not want me to write about the things that have happened to them in their lives that have caused each of them in different ways, grief and shame.

For this reason I stick with my own untidy life, or try to do so.  But it is nearly impossible given my life is punctuated with exchanges with all these wonderful people who frequent my life beyond my family as their stories are their stories.

Still I take comfort from Helen Garner’s words in a recent radio interview with Philip Adams when she says:

‘Who owns the stories anyhow? Stories are not just bits of stuff we pick up on the street and can possess.’

Stories float around outside and are there for everyone.

Writers take things from their observations and experience and try to give them meaning to share with others. And the meaning is subjective in so far as it emerges out of the writer’s eye and mind but it is also universal to the degree that others might resonate with it and others who do not resonate might learn something new from someone’s story that they had never  known before.

And on Sunday, I put on my old clothes and repainted the back gate, which my husband had finally hung after some twenty years of the gate’s waiting in the outside garden in readiness. And the special lock he kept to fit to the gate is now finally in place.


Another of those jobs he never quite got round to doing, though it was there in the back of his mind begging for attention and long missing out until an at home wedding called for action.

And all these pesky little holes in our lives have been patched up until next time.

8 thoughts on “‘I stand here ironing’”

  1. I hope I am not repeating myself and it may be irrelevant but perhaps suits the mood of your post, I once heard a story of woman who in the middle of cooking the full Christmas dinner for her children and grandchildren broke down in tears and said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore’. I was once a useful person who people came to for advice about matters tech and computers. Now young people’s knowledge has far exceeded mine and they can text at twice the speed I can, even if I did send my first text in 1996. How can I make this relevant to what you wrote. Well, my mother is poor yet has barely worked a day in her life in paid employment. She has a certain social skill that makes people line up to help her, friends, family and all. My stepmother is like your sister. She brought up children on her own by working hard in low paid jobs, stuck to a budget, put a little bit away and was quite independent and at 78, she still is. My mother seems needy, my step mother not.

    1. People can be so different in terms of their needs and expectations, Andrew. I’d be wary of judging. I understand the burdens that can feel so overwhelming, too, especially when it comes to the endless grind of domesticity. Thanks, Andrew.

  2. I’m not sure I was ever taught to iron. I think—typical me—I simply picked it up from watching others. It was never a job I hated and I’m competent but I don’t do it any more; I live in clothes that don’t need to be ironed and have done for a long time now. I think the last time anything was ironed in this house was when I went to have my photo taken with my daughter after she gained her degree. Carrie ironed the shirt for me not that it needed much ironing as it was brand new and it’s never been worn since. I could’ve done it but it was a symbolic gesture.

    I don’t write much about my family. People who’ve followed my blog for years and have kept a file on me will have some basic biographical details but I deliberately say little about my brother and sister or my daughter online except where their stories overlap with mine; I say more about my parents who’re now both dead but there’s so much I keep to myself. I just posted a comment on Ken Armstrong’s blog about my daughter in which I said how proud I was of her when she received her degree, hence the photo, but I’ve never once mentioned her name, not even her first name, online.

    Thinking about what Helen Garner said my initial response is: But who says the stories have to be told? It’s like my toys in my office. I don’t play with them. Most I’ve hardly touched. I took them out of their packaging, found a place when I could look at them and get some pleasure and that’s it. Stories, likewise, don’t have to be told. They can just sit there, in a drawer or in a folder on a hard drive or in our heads. For most of us that’s enough. I lived those stories and you can’t get more out of a story that to live it to its fullest at its time. You can’t relive a story. It’s the wrong verb completely.

    I do get the idea of sharing a story as a selfless, even a charitable, act. I’ve just read Don Delillo’s ‘Falling Man’ and when I was writing the review I eventually posted on Goodreads I noted how many people were disappointed with the book when it came out because it didn’t say what they thought it ought to have; he didn’t live up to their expectations. A bit ungrateful, eh? They wanted a symphony and here he gave them a quartet, maybe a sextet. What I’m sure he realised as he was writing it was that others were also working on—or had already published—works dealing with 9/11 and the obvious was covered quickly and to the general satisfaction of the book-buying public. He filled a gap in the market although I’m sure that wasn’t his motivation. Little by little all the gaps are being filled but I wonder when the story will finally have been told and we can move on? Stories are—or at least can be—a way of putting things to bed. There, I’ve said it; it’s been said; enough’s been said. Now we can close the book on that. Now we can move on.

    1. You must be sick to death of my stories, Jim, because I tend to go over them again and again. I keep prodding at them hoping perhaps to find a different way of writing about something that’s at least meaningful for me, though for others it might be more of the same old same old. I’m sure there are many more stories that have not been told as there are stories told, and so many more perspectives left out. Only so many people want to explore the stories of their own lives and those of others and only so many others want to read them. It’s a limited market. Still it’s fun to explore those stories, at least for me, however painful it can sometimes be as well. Thanks, Jim

  3. I really like this story, the analogies, the comments….
    I’m reminded of my own ironing chore as a child. Every Saturday it was my duty to take the plastic bag of pillow cases and shirts that had been dampened, rolled up and stored in a zippered bag. Only once did I wait too long and the articles had grown mold. Such a vivid memory, as is the one after i began bearing children, when I made the firm decision to never buy anything that required ironing.

    1. I made that decision in more recent years too, Kass. To buy only clothes that need no ironing. It’s not easy.
      What an extraordinary image that bag of rolled up moist clothes waiting to be ironed only to find them one day gone mouldy. It must have been ghastly for your young self. Thanks, Kass.

  4. I don’t like domestic jobs—never have; never will. However, if I had to pick one, ironing would be my favourite household chore. I’d rather iron than cook or clean. I feel quite nice when I look at a row of shirts I’ve just ironed—except that I think about all the other more useful ways I could have spent my time, like writing or taking photos!

    I completely relate to this post, too, in the yearning to write more than we can. But there are other people to consider, and I don’t want to hurt them or tell their stories. Partly because I worry so much about offending people, right now I’m baulking at writing anything personal at all for my blog. A ‘safe’ topic will come up, though …

    Good luck with the wedding!

  5. The trouble with ‘safe’ topics, Louise, as well you’d know, they can have that bland edge. Though that’s perhaps not entirely true. Good writing can turn even a stone into something more stony and that’s always the aim. As for ironing once I’m into it, I too can enjoy the experience and certainly the outcome but oh the time it takes, and setting up too and putting away. It’s easier by far to sit at my computer already charged up. Thanks, Louise.

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