IRONING

Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
creased.
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.

Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.

When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.

The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.

When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.

Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.

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