Sunday, January 8, 2012

Requiem at an Ironing Board

           This is Chapter 6 in a series entitled Telling My Story
My mother never taught me to cook.  She didn't like to have anyone "under her feet" in the kitchen and that included her daughters. She never taught me to sew - she never taught me to clean a house (although you could not live with her and not learn how to clean things just by watching her go at it).

Household Essentials Bamboo Wide Top Ironing BoardBut, honey, you'd better believe she taught me how to iron clothes.  And tablecloths, and dishtowels, and pillow cases, and dresser scarves... and, well you get the idea.  It if could be washed in our house, it was going to be ironed and that was a guarantee.

Before she became a nurse, Mom had taken in ironing to earn money as one of two jobs she was working to support us during another one of my father's recurring absences.

This was no easy way to make a dollar, as there was no such thing as permanent press in those days.  You had to put water in an clean coke bottle, with a handy little cork stopper with an aluminum sprinkler head on it.  This device was used to sprinkle - or dampen - the clothes to be ironed.  Each piece was then rolled into a loose ball and placed in the clothes basket to await its turn on the ironing board.  Steam irons were still in the future, at least for us.

Sprinkling was its own skill, because if you got them too damp, it could take forever to get them ironed dry; but if you didn't get them damp enough, the wrinkles just would not iron out completely.

And then there was spray starch - now that was an adventure.  There was Niagara, of course, and Faultless and a couple of other brands.  If you got lucky and had a good can, you could spray a nice even sheen over the garment, and when you were finished with it, it smelled wonderful and looked almost brand new. 

But if it was a bad can, or the little spray hole had gotten clogged, well, you knew you were in for a long afternoon of struggling to iron out spots where the starch had made a watermark on the fabric, or where it flaked off behind the iron, leaving a little white trail of stuff.  A bad can of spray starch was a misery to be sure.

By the time I was in high school, I ironed well enough that I could also make some money by doing ironing.  I can't remember the pricing structure from those days, but it seems to me it was something like twenty five cents for a shirt or a blouse, fifty cents for a pair of pants or slacks, fifteen cents a piece for pillow cases. It was quite an accomplishment to make five dollars doing ironing.
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Mom was a "extreme iron-er" and Dad was an extreme neat-freak about his own shirts.  He would refuse to wear anything that was not ironed to perfection.  He always dressed like a million dollars, even if he was unemployed and did not know how he was going to make his car payment.  By this time Mom was a seasoned co-dependent and enabler, so she carefully ironed every shirt as though he was a monarch, and he had lots of shirts; even during the times when she had not had a new dress in years. 

As a young girl watching all this play out, I thought she was either weak or crazy or both.  Good grief, why didn't she just refuse to do it anymore, or tell him to iron his own darned shirts?  Yes, I was a Christian, but I was bound and determined not to become the kind of Christian my mother seemed to be, kowtowing to someone who was undependable on a good day, and wretchedly unkind on a bad one.

As I have revisited these things in my memories, I have come to realize why it is that nearly every autobiographical story I have ever read, was only written after the author's own parents were gone. It would be too painful to write the truth and have them read it; and too frustrating to write a phony account. 

My parents are both gone.  My mother was with us until 2010 and went peacefully to be with the Lord, at the age of eighty two, as I stood by her bedside.  But dad ... how to tell this chapter without straying into the  maudlin or the horrific?

As his alcoholism worsened so had his temper.  His career now in shambles, and increasingly morose, he no longer even resembled the hail-fellow-well-met of his youth; that smiling young guy on the motorcycle who thought the world was his for the taking.

He became increasingly violent, and our lives became a melodrama complete with broken furniture to accompany the broken promises, temporary restraining orders (TRO) which local police ignored because dad was so charming when they came to the house to "interview" him about the disturbances, and finally threats on our lives, mine in particular.  He could intimidate, even terrify, my two younger sisters. 

But somehow I had become immune to his ranting and threats and refused to bow and scrape to him.  It infuriated him so much that he began to tell my mother that some day, while she was at work, he was going to kill me.  He no longer lived with us but he knew how to break into the house and did.

My mother did not believe in divorce, but finally filed for one because the police told her they would not enforce her restraining orders against my father, unless she was divorcing him.  This was before the days of "no fault" or "irreconcilable differences".  Her attorney told her that her most assured way of getting the TRO
taken seriously was to file on grounds of extreme cruelty, and while this was certainly true, there were no witnesses outside the family.  Thus, as the oldest child to witness the behaviors that fit that description, I was told I would have to testify against my father in the divorce hearing.

I was fifteen, and had been having stomach problems for quite some time.  Twice I was taken to the ER with stomach attacks so serious that the doctor diagnosed ulcers and told my mother the next time he would have to hospitalize me.  I was skinny as a rail, and could only keep food down by taking a quarter of a cup of creamed papaya before each meal to coat my stomach.

The day I testified, my dad's presence was not required in court.  But at the last minute, in he walked, straight down to the front row of seats, and took a seat directly across from the witness stand where I had just been seated.  The entire time that I answered the attorney's questions (probably not more than fifteen minutes but it seemed like an eternity) my father looked at me sadly and shook his head from side to side as though every word I was saying was a complete lie. 

The judge granted my mother the divorce and we went directly home, where I threw up for several hours narrowly avoiding a return trip to the hospital.

I rarely saw my father for the next few years.  I married just after high school and had two little boys.  We lived an hour's drive from where my mother lived.  When I was eight months pregnant with my third child, there was a knock on our door one evening.  The visitor was there to inform us that my father's body had been discovered in a large city a few hours south of where we lived.

He had actually lived with us (my husband and our two little boys and me) for several months the year before his death.  He called one day out of the blue when I had not seen him in nearly two years, and asked if he could come to dinner.  I said yes, provided he wasn't drinking.  He showed up shaky but sober ... and stayed six months in our spare room.  (Talk about the old joke "the man who came to dinner and stayed six months.") During that time we talked quietly a few times about life, faith, and forgiveness.  He was in AA and he sometimes went to church with us, but we did not make an issue of it.  God had worked on both our hearts and I was hopeful he was in recovery.

However, eventually he began drinking again, and I had to ask him to leave, as I would not allow my small boys to be exposed to what I had experienced as a child.

So now, at twenty-six, I was preparing for his funeral.  He was forty-six when he died.  Because he had left some clothing at our house the year before, when the funeral home asked who could bring some clothes for him to be buried in, I said that I could.

He had always wanted a son.  I had tried to be better than a son to him: washing the car with him, mowing the lawn, helping him put up porch screens, stacking firewood with him until my shoulders were aching.

But that day, as I ironed the shirt he would be buried in, I prayed and the tears flowed, and I said in my heart, "Ah, Dad, only a daughter would iron a shirt for you to be buried in.  A son would not be doing this for you. But I will." 

I said goodbye to him, without anger in my heart, and with the bitterness ebbing away.  I was not, and am not, a perfect Christian; but I have nearly always tried to be an obedient one.  That day, I was glad I had said "yes" when he asked for a place to live for those months.  And I was glad I had learned to iron so well.       
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There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to tear and a time to mend... Ecclesiastes 3:  1-2,4, 6, 7


  1. How very poignant. You are a true overcomer who's discovered the only way to overcome those difficult situations is to forgive and love. You are a talented writer-

  2. What a story this is. I'm glad you had that time of having him with you. I don't know if I could have said yes to that, but good for you for forgiving.

  3. You are a very good, forgiving Christian and a super story teller. It must have been such a hard time for you as a teenager. One wonders what made him like that and what long term effect did it have on your mother, you and your sisters.

  4. ah I can see the onfolding of this story... as with all stories in our lives, God uses them to shape us. He had already created you with a strength to withstand and go beyond these circumstances, even if you may not have felt it at the time, it's woven into your story already.

    I'm so enjoying these chapters Marsha. You learned early about forgiveness.

  5. Marsha, you bring a truth and tenderness to the story of your life that requires great depth and understanding of God's word. Thank you for sharing this so truthfully and lovingly.


  6. The best scripture in the Bible. Time is the only thing God has 100% control of in our world. Our son-in-law passed away last June right on time which gave our daughter a brighter future than we ever though possible, she bought a home an almost new car and more. It is sorrowful to know our 39 year old is a widow but Gods timing was perfect to change sorrow to peace.

  7. To All the Above:

    Thank you for your insightful and encouraging feedback. This was a heavy chapter to write and I will do my best to "lighten things up" a little in the coming chapters.

    God bless you - Marsha

  8. Whew - a great writer you are. I'm sorry for the pain in your life. I'm glad you had the opportunity to reconcile a bit before his death. That was all a lot to handle. I think you have to share things like that once in while - like peeling an onion. I understand more then you know. sandie

  9. I learned to iron shirts too. Many afternoons, when I got off the school bus the ironing board was waiting for me and my sister. I'm glad that you are willing to share your life with us. I'm glad you and your dad had that time together. I love the way you write.

  10. You have written another very poignant chapter about your life. Thank you for having the courage so that others who face similar situations may see how the hand of God works in all our lives. I especially love how the Holy Spirit helps us to forgive one another as He has forgiven us!