Monday, January 9, 2012

Calling All Bluebirds, Adorable Mice, and Fairy Godmothers

Once, when I asked to attend a second week of camp, my mother, who had budgeted for just one, suggested that I work to earn the money. Only thirteen, I was too young to find work outside the home, and babysitting did not promise enough return to pay for camp, but Mother, as always, had a plan. She told her friends that I would be taking in ironing, and her friends were only too eager to provide their husbands’ shirts and boxers. Ick!

One man liked his collars stiffly starched, but the sleeves and body only lightly starched. Another liked two to three rounds of starch on every square inch, collar, sleeve and body. A third did not care for starch much at all so a light spritz was necessary to meet his demands.

Mother taught me to spray each shirt with water, roll it lightly, and place it in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. When the shirt was properly damp, I learned to iron it once, beginning with the collar, moving to the sleeves, then onto the back, finally the front. The next pressing was with starch, perfecting the fabric until it was free of every crease and wrinkle. Then I hung it on a hangar, aligning the shoulder seams with the hangar and buttoning every other button so that the shirt hung smooth and straight.

This was the steamy summer when I decided that wearing rumpled clothes never harmed anyone and that, like Bartleby, I simply preferred not to . . . iron, that is. I also decided that being paid for each shirt or pressed boxer short was labor I never wished to undertake after the summer ended, especially because the full wage was not mine to keep. Mother subtracted her costs first. She calculated some sum for the electricity, leasing an iron and board from her, and, of course, the starch.

Some of you reading this are cheering my mother’s ingenuity. Sure, she taught me the value of labor, the skill of ironing, and how to satisfy customers who would call Mother to report that Mr. So-and So’s collar was not stiff enough. She also taught me to dislike the face-off known as Quality Control and encounters with management, especially when Manager-Mother decided that I could do all the family’s ironing that summer. When I protested that I was not being paid to meet the ironing demands of the family, I received Mother’s stony stare in answer. When I whined that it was unfair to make me iron all my sister’s clothing while not asking her to do any of her own, Mother gave me the standard excuse: You do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it; she doesn’t so it’s just easier for you to do it.

That really stung, especially because I was required to pick up and clean my sister’s room as well as my own for the same reason. I had to help dust furniture, but Sis did not. She had learned to pout, cry, tattle, and appear to be quite sick. I learned to soldier on in spite of these.

Lest you doubt that truth, allow me to tell you one more story. As a sophomore in high school, just fifteen, I was given orders to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for a great-aunt and her husband who would be guests at the table. Mother was gone, having driven my dad’s father to a medical center in Texas to discover if something more could be done to slow the progress of his cancers. The tests had taken longer than anyone expected so Mother gave me directions over the phone. I told her I didn’t feel well enough to cook, serve, and clean, but she wasn’t having any of it. I told Dad that my throat was sorer than I had ever known it to be, but he said I needed to cook. So I did.

After I washed and dried the last dish and after Dad’s great-aunt waved good-bye, Dad offered to take my temperature. 104°! Finally, at the doctor's the next day, I learned that I had strep throat. Dad just bought the antibiotic and told me to stay in my room. Mom came home and set a plate of crackers and a bubbly glass of 7-Up by my bed. That was it. No thank you or we’re sorry.

I guess you could give them the benefit of the doubt: after all, Grandpa was dying; I’m sure they were distracted. Or you might say that my parents’ generation had different attitudes. They didn’t believe in coddling younguns; they believed in making them tough enough to make good decisions, work hard every day, and never ask for a handout.

And you’d be right--except for the matter of my sister. She has more in common with the wicked step-sisters who mocked poor Cinderella when their own mother, Cinderella’s stepmother, assigned so many chores that Cinderella needed the magic of bluebirds, adorable mice, and fairy godmothers to break free and find her Prince--which I did, by the way, and he’s wonderful.