Care Was Taken Here

Telluride Daily Planet, Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cousine Christine, second wife of Bernard (psychiatrist and first cousin), hoists her luggage onto the mattress. “Your sheets are cotton, right?” She looks at me. “Because, I’m allergic to anything that has polyester in it.”

“They’re cotton,” I say. “Of course, they’re cotton.” Actually, there’s a slim chance I’ve used the spare 50/50 set; but I’d rather lie to this woman than let the linens at my house become bullet number three on her tick list of American barbarisms, right after watery coffee and rubbery cheese.

Well, 10 years have passed. Bernard’s wonderful children are grown, and he has since remarried. Christine is in a rock band (and seems not to have allergies of any kind), and I have long since purged the linen closet of embarrassments.

Now, presently, I happen to be staring at a jumbled mass of new robin’s egg blue cotton sheets, just out of the dryer. And I am wondering what kind of enviable parallel life I might be pulling off if Christine had actually said, “These sheets are ironed, right? Because I’m allergic to anything wrinkled.”

Though my mother was French, you see, I am a product of the American Cotton-Poly Wars, the Permanent Press Years — a hellish span for anyone prone to appreciating a crease or the skin-feel of nice cotton. Madison Avenue’s mission? Rushing you to the dryer when you heard it buzz so you could yank out all the shirts so you could hang them up so they could look like the cheap cotton/poly wrinkle-free-but-unpressed garments they were. I wore these shirts to Catholic high school — itching and sweating through classes and masses — only realizing much later what they were: the modern day equivalent of the Medieval hairshirt.

Meanwhile, back in the motherland, the relatives — especially the older ones — blithely continued to iron everything in sight. Francoise still irons her husband Jean Pierre’s pants, shirts, handkerchiefs and his underwear. Napkins are ironed, as are towels, tablecloths, even doilies. An ironed thing says to the world, “Care was taken here.”

I think about all of this as I retrieve our ironing board, fiddling with its flimsy lever and its flimsy legs and wishing it didn’t squeak, which is what I wish every time I open it, which is why I rarely do. The iron might tip over, fall, and break (it has before) when I try to maneuver this sea of blue cloth around.

I have no idea how to iron a sea, so I use the only protocol I can think of: just go. My hand begins moving back and forth and back and forth and then eventually lapses into K-turning, as if the iron is trying to get out of a parking space or through a tight spot in a dark alley. These are graceless, choppy, unpleasant movements. Where on earth am I on this wrinkled map? How do I get out? Is the sheet picking up dust bunnies down below? Finally … I give up. Tip the iron up. Look around.

Snow falls from the roof. I think about the iron made of iron my great grandmother used and then slip backwards into a dream of the night before. A strange house in the middle of the African desert. I’m following a man through his house to an art studio. The place is airy, modern, deliciously Danish, the man exotic, the continent even more so. Feeling expansive, and proud of my subconscious for once, I pick up the tool of my ancestors one more time. Though I’ve not ironed much in life, all of it has been rushed.

My mind still untethered, I untether my arm, my hand, and the ironing board becomes a Ouija Board and I’m holding the pointer, letting it run, letting it figure out the edges of the fabric, the traverses of its geometry. Without realizing it, I’ve eventually folded the sheet, then folded it again and again until what I have before me is a pile of folds. I iron that. I manage the fitted sheet in much the same way, without thinking of technique, just the slow, even movements of the iron and a sense of where and when to fold.

This mystery — of slowing down to finish faster — stays with me as we lay the flat blue sea out on my daughter’s bed. She will slide between the cool perfection of ironed sheets in her own house this one time. Will she take the time to fully appreciate them? To note the care taken?

I look out Celine’s window as she picks up her phone, texts, waits impatiently for the reply. I wonder how this generation will learn to slow the iron down. How they will ever pause long enough to watch icicles melt. How they will allow themselves to be riveted by the puffed-up chickadee in a snowy tree that in turn is doing nothing but being riveted by being a chickadee.

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