A Short History of Ironing

Catherine Freeling

Part 1:  The Flat Work

Saturday morning: I pour a cup of coffee, pull down
the ironing board. Original to the house. 87 years old.
Usually folded upright in its own cupboard, set into
the pantry door. A door to a cupboard in a door, like a puzzle.
As if I could be telling a story that begins, Not long ago…

Men with strong arms, tall ladders, aprons full of tools
asked me, Is there anything you want to save?

Once I would have said, My marriage.
Once I would have said, Myself.

But that day I told them, The ironing board.

Because the flatwork was my girlhood chore. Another child
might have felt resentful, but I think I believed,
with each pressed handkerchief and pillowcase,
I was saving someone. Because, though we lived
in the middle of town, our house was its own wilderness
and, though very young, with my iron I could smooth
deep creases, provide the civilized napkin.
As if each stack of folded cloth was an offering.

We’ll have to take out the whole pantry, the men said,
then put it back when the new walls are in place. It’s tricky.
So many things can go wrong.

I’ll take the risk, I said, and signed a paper.


Part 2: The Wedding Shirt

Here he comes, wearing the slacks of his new suit.
He drapes the jacket and tie over a chair, hands me the shirt.
I’m a little nervous, Mom.

But the sun came out for you, I say, lick my finger, check
the temperature, and start with the cuffs, working away
from the buttons, then spread the sleeves, one at a time.
He sits at the kitchen table. A big man with burly arms.
His hands seem small, almost delicate, holding a coffee cup.

Next, over the end of the board, I pull the yoke that will cover
his broad shoulders. The word, “yoke.” What we take on.
What comes to us. Early, I almost lost him.

The wide back is flat and easy, except for the pleat.
When he was little, in a time that hardly seems real,
I had to pound his back each day to release fluid from the lungs.
How “pleat” sounds like a child’s cry in the night.

Next, the front, with a pocket that will lie close to his heart.
Long ago, doctors examined his small chest, said
the effort to breathe had made his heart grow bigger.

Then the placket. The buttons and buttonholes will fall
between his lungs. I remember the night they said,
We’re going to have to put him in an iron lung.
Silently, I press each buttonhole.

And finally, the collar, which will circle his neck,
through which breath passes.

He stirs some sugar into a fresh cup of coffee.
I’m not going to cry.

When I hand him the finished shirt, he stands, slips his arms
through the sleeves, and it’s as if, when he pulls the cloth
over his shoulders and begins the buttoning, I’m blessing him.
Can he still feel the iron’s warmth?
I reach up to smooth the collar over his tie.

I don’t say, You won’t make a mess of it, like I did.
I don’t say, Forgive me.

As if, at least for today, the past can stay folded.
A long-ago stack of flatwork.

He checks the rings one more time. I slide the ironing board
back in its cupboard, close the door.


“A Short History of Ironing” is impressive because of the skill with which it mixes the ars poetica, and autobiographical testimony, not to mention its sly critique of gender roles: what many of us would see as domestic drudgery is transformed into a quasi-magical ritual.
—David Wojahn, 2013 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize Judge

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