“The Perfect Gift"

A Memoir by Dorothy Hand

The ad in the magazine announced in bold, black letters that it was time to “Retire Your Iron.” It listed the merits of a new material that was guaranteed to provide a wrinkle-free shirt after washing. 

Now for most people, I’m sure that would sound like a dream come true. The perfect gift. However, I knew that I would never, ever, not iron that shirt. I can’t help it. It’s part of my DNA. At the very least, I would need to press the collar and cuffs. I think it all goes back to my mother and possibly my grandmother. In fact I’m sure it does.

My mother once told me about how when she was a young girl, she would help her mother iron. She explained that Babcia’s iron was a heavy, triangular piece of cast iron that needed to be heated first on a woodburning stove before it could be used to press anything. Actually, the entire process required multiple irons, because as one iron cooled it would be replaced with a new, hot iron. 

My mother was the runner. She would bring the hot iron to her mother and return the cool iron to the stove. It was a very long and labor-intensive job. 

After my mother graduated from high school, she worked for a time in a local drycleaners, where she learned the artistry of ironing from a man who was called a presser. He taught her how to press delicate materials like ladies’ silk blouses and dresses, skirts with layers of ruffles or tight pleats, men’s imported fine linen shirts with French cuffs, and how to raise a monogram on a sheet or napkin. Mom was a natural. She learned quickly and never rushed. She had discovered the secrets to being an advanced presser. Find a good teacher, pay attention, and slow down.

I really can’t remember a time when my mother wasn’t ironing. She pressed everything from underwear to fancy dresses, sheets and pillowcases, embroidered linens, and curtains. Mom ironed mountains and mountains of curtains. Every spring she had customers who would pay her to wash, starch, and press their Priscilla curtains. Do you remember those sheer, white, ruffled curtains with their matching ruffled tiebacks that framed every window in almost every house in the 1950s? 

If I close my eyes, I can still see our glass-enclosed front porch filled with those curtains hanging from a steel rod that ran the entire length of that room, and almost catch a whiff of the special starch that Mom would prepare as a stiffener. That starch had a very familiar scent. Not sweet, not soapy. She somehow managed to capture the smell of springtime and fresh air.

As the front porch filled with those billowy curtains, Mom would then select a day, gather her children, and issue her annual reminder by stating firmly, “The front porch is off limits. I don’t want to see any of you using that front door to come into this house. And I don’t want any sticky fingers touching those curtains. Have I made myself clear?”

Of course, my siblings and I would vigorously nod our heads up and down to confirm that we understood Mom’s orders. 

But even with that warning, I have a very vivid memory of crawling underneath all those freshly pressed curtains, rolling over on my back and looking up and feeling like I was floating on a cloud. 

At various times throughout my life I asked my mother, “Mom, how can you iron so much? It seems endless and exhausting.”

Her answer was often the same. “It gives me time to think and dream.”

She must have seen the puzzled look on my face because then she would always smile and say, “You’ll understand when you get older.”

  As time passed, I waited for the understanding to arrive, but to me ironing was just a chore. I never reached that level of enjoyment that my mother found. I have to admit, growing up with my mother and her iron spoiled me to the point that I still need to iron my sheets and pillowcases. They just feel better ironed. And I still try to follow my mother’s advice of not presenting myself to the public like a wrinkled heap of rags. I even press my jeans although I don’t press a crisp, military crease down the center of each pant leg like my mother would insist on doing, even when I pleaded with her to just let them be natural.

  It’s only recently, maybe within the last five years, that I finally “got the message.” Mom had passed about two years earlier and as I was ironing I started thinking about things. First, it was just ordinary things like grocery lists or errands that needed to be completed. Sometimes, it was a practical list of items to be packed for a vacation or gifts to be purchased for Christmas. But then one day, I found myself using this time to mull over problems or make decisions. Gradually, this weekly routine became an important part of my life. 

My laundry room is sunny, with two walls of windows. In the summer I overlook a backyard filled with colorful, blooming flowers. Birds, squirrels, and rabbits visit regularly. In the winter it’s a peaceful retreat to watch the snow fall. 

I find the repetition of ironing relaxing and at times it almost lulls me to sleep even though I’m standing up. The gentle rhythm of the iron gliding over the sheets and pillowcases as well as the warmth generated by the steam rising from the iron creates a safe haven where I can dream and think. 

I finally understand how important this time was for my mother. In a house filled with five children and constant activity, this was her quiet time.

What surprises me now is that the thing that so many people are trying to find, my mother found in her own tiny kitchen, ironing. Some people travel to foreign lands and search for inner peace. Some people stand on their head or chant for hours on a mountaintop just to quiet their life. Some escape to tropical beaches or continue their studies looking for an answer in a book. I’ve found a way that works for me. Now I understand my mother’s knowing smile and the obvious message. 

  Yes, there are days when the ordinary rules. Grocery lists and errands to run are a necessary part of life. But more often than not, I just listen to the quiet. There are moments when good times are remembered with people who are no longer here. Sometimes, I just talk to God and listen for the whisper of guidance. 

But one thing for sure is that I finally recognize the perfect gift given to me by my mother. She was my wise and patient teacher who in her own way taught me to slow down and pay attention. 

I saw the ad in that magazine as a reminder from my mother. Sure, it was tempting to save time and purchase that shirt with the wrinkle-free guarantee. There was a moment when I paused. But it was only a moment. 

Then I realized no, I could never retire my iron. It’s my mountaintop, my tropical beach, and it provides me with the answers to all my questions. It clears my head and opens my heart. Why would anyone want to throw something like that away? 


Dorothy Hand is a native of Bridgehampton whose English ancestors settled here in the mid-1600s. Now retired from over three decades working for the Town of Southampton, she enjoys writing inspirational stories, and is currently working on a children’s book.