My mother’s iron was heavy, with a speckled cord and stubby plug. In the cellar, she and I pressed my father’s shirts. He worked a desk job he’d never dreamed of growing up in a South End tenement, working a machine in a nearby raincoat factory and letting it all proceed from there. His Aunt Sadie, who cleaned rich peoples’ houses, spoke to a priest who got him off the line. His life, and my mother’s and mine, proceeded from there. His desk job was the kind people from his neighborhood didn’t get. My mother told me again and again that she made him what he was. He was nothing when she met him, it was all her, she said. His people were poor like hers, and she sized them up while seeing herself in them.
My mother grew up number six of ten children in Vermont. She was five when everything collapsed in ’29. The Depression shaped her. Something happened and she fled to Boston in her 20s, where she met and married my father. It was before the desk job, he was janitorial where she worked. She adopted me to become a mother, but she regretted it. Dishes crusted over in the sink for days. Bills accrued on tables. I was alone with her all day before I got to go to school. Asking if she’d play Go Fish or checkers was asking too much. She slept on the long flowered sofa in the living room most afternoons. I would creep by to get a book I’d left on the rug, and she’d jolt awake, what? Squint. Who’s there? Just a few more minutes. Hours would go by, bifocals lying somewhere on the floor.
I mostly stayed in my room too small for a bed, reading. It was the best arrangement, me and books, raising myself on a hide-a-bed loveseat. But the pressing. The pressing we did together. Pressing changed wrinkled to smooth, wet to dry. It was a clean job. My mother and I pressed so my father would look good bent over his papers for long hours. His father, Snazzy, had shoveled coal into furnaces and died young and dirty. A desk job was to be pressed for, it was a lucky ticket.
We pressed in the cellar, at the ironing board next to a socket in a box on the wall. Friends called their cellars basements, but my mother had grown up in a farmhouse with a dirt-floor root cellar, so ours was a cellar. Our cellar had a cement floor and a mildew smell I loved. When it rained hard, water would gush in. My mother would call my father at work, and he would rush home. Mad and interrupted, he husked off his blazer and dress shoes, shoved his feet into old sneakers and descended ahead of my mother into the cellar. They bailed with buckets, heaving water out the bulkhead into the backyard grass. My mother shrieked that if he earned more they could move. When he ignored her she shrieked about getting electrocuted and did he want that? Shrieked why did she marry him? Shrieked why couldn’t he fix the cellar? I heard all this through the floor, I was not allowed into the cellar during bailing because I might be electrocuted, don’t tell any of your friends we have water in the cellar. She was ashamed of the wet cellar, and shame is an awful feeling you have to throw off however you can.
After a while, my mother would give up bailing and come upstairs, yelling where’s that girl? In my room, gripping my book. She barged in, I need you to get up and put the dishes away. Why is that sweater on the floor? Am I a millionaire, I buy you things you step on? I dropped my book and shaky as a foal placed the sweater on my chair, ducked past her to the kitchen. There was an old shirt for drying dishes, good only for half-drying. Make sure those dishes are dry I don’t want sticky dishes. She fell onto the sofa, me smearing dishes with a damp shirt and my father bailing the house below deck.
When there was no rain the cellar was dry and we pressed my father’s shirts, and my mother felt good at something and I felt helpful. We were mother-daughter then. We would go down together and she would say hold onto the railing you could fall. She’d flip the high-up light switch and we’d go into the furnace room. In there, a giant oil-burning creature churned, giving off dry heat. There were four lines strung across the room, and that was how we dried clothes. My father’s shirts – sky blue, bachelor button stripe, cobalt houndstooth – hung by their shirttails on the lines nearest the heat beast, sleeves reaching toward the floor. My mother shuffled sideways down the lines unclasping the clothespins, shirts piling in the crook of one arm. I’d pick up any clothespins that dropped, clutching them tight in my fist.
My mother led the way to the ironing board. I picked wet handkerchiefs from the washing machine walls, where the spin cycle had flung them like tiny bird corpses against the porcelain tub. I loved the ksht sound they made when they came away cold and smelling of Tide. I mounded the wet birds on top of the machine. My mother wetted a fingertip in her mouth to quick touch the iron, listening for a fizz sound. It was a satisfying sound. Don’t ever touch the iron, she’d say, picking up the first shirt.
She splayed it open and draped the arms down the sides of the board. Blue like my father’s eyes, the shirt, and almost the length of the board. Give me one. I dropped a wet handkerchief into her hand and she spread it on the shirttail as a source of steam. BANG, she smashed the iron down, HISS the steam rose, BANG the iron HISS the steam BANG HISS. She moved the handkerchief as it dried, two birds with one stone, reciting domestic lessons: we may not be rich but our clothes are ironed, watch where you step down here, never leave the iron face down, make sure it’s off off and then unplug, off off OFF. She handed me the hot handkerchief and I plucked it between my fingers while handing her a wet lump with my other hand. BANG HISS she’d go, as I let the cotton square glide down onto the washing machine top, a dove, a stingray. I folded each perfect square in half and half again, pressing each with both my hands.
Sometimes my mother would tell the story of the heavy iron she used when she was my age. In the farmhouse, the iron got hot on the wood stove. It was her chore to do all the pressing. She never had new clothes, only things her older sisters handed down. My mother had ten children, she would always say, as if I’d forgotten. I was somewhere in the middle. Old clothes had to be ironed or she and her siblings would look poor at school. I asked about her mother. She had too many children. Her father. He died when I was young. I asked more but she said, keep yourself over there.
Go up, she’d say, standing with her thumb ready and high to turn the light off, I don’t want you ever touching this switch. We climbed the stairs past my father’s bailing shoes, past the coffee cans jammed with sponges and toothbrushes, the weathered Yellow Pages piled on steps. Careful with that door, don’t hit the cupboards. I’d sidestep into the kitchen while she footed the cellar door closed. Our house was tight quarters, like the ship we toured once in Boston Harbor, captain and crew sleeping below deck in just-sized spaces, no extra. I remember thinking I would be good at living on a ship. I remember thinking I already did.
In my parents’ bedroom, where I was not usually allowed, I’d stand while my mother struggled to hang the pressed shirts in the small closet. Her back to me, I eyed the two twin beds separated by a nightstand, like on the I Love Lucy show. All my friends’ parents had one big bed with two nightstands on either side. My father’s bed had an untucked top sheet because he liked to put his feet out in the air. My mother’s bed was a hillside of blankets and clothes. She often slept in the living room on her sofa. After the struggle in the closet, my mother turned to the bureau. Opening my father’s sock drawer, she pushed aside the slither of socks and stood, hands on hips, hissing hair off her face. Put them in. I guided the stack of handkerchiefs onto the liner paper, like laying an infant in a just-sized crib. They were ready for my father to take in his trouser pocket, flick open and use on his glasses, wipe his nose after smoking, cover a cough. Use the handles, don’t jam the drawer. Okay.I’m going to lie down, my mother would call from halfway down the hall, close that door tight. I pulled the door shut and minced down the hall into my room, closing my own door without making a sound. I fitted myself into the crook of the loveseat so I could see out the window. The pressing was done. My father could be something at his desk job. My mother could sleep on her sofa knowing she’d done a wifely thing, and showed her daughter the steps of pressing. Again. Things bear repeating. Good things come to those who wait, she’d say. I said it often to myself while I waited to be old enough to bail.
Beth Cleary has worked as an academic and theater director for over a quarter-century, feeding her writing fires during teaching breaks. She has recent essays in Fourth Genre and Punctuate, and her work for theater is in XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, and Playwrights’ Center anthologies. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she co-founded the East Side Freedom Library.
Anonymous Was a Woman
Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Elinora Lord is a lesbian writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK. Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London’s West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Elinora is also working on The Art of Almost, a lesbian comedy-drama radio series as well as writing a television drama series and the sequel to her novel, Everland.