I learned how to iron a shirt when I had a nervous breakdown that sent me back from California, another one of those moves I’d made in the sixties to get out and away from home. The breakdown brought me right back from where I’d started, but this time everything was a bit darker and less solid. "Like a hole that's a tattoo," my mother said, not asking, telling me like only she could know what I felt like. These little aphorisms sprinkled here and there were her idea of putting me back together again. How a hole was like a tattoo I wasn't exactly sure yet, but I knew she would be sending the meaning along during the length of my stay.
After a few days of allowing me to oversleep and mull around the house in my slippers, eating only saltines and a little cheese, she came into my bedroom one morning and announced, holding my breakfast steaming in her hands, "This hole you are in is really just yourself. You gotta get out and start doing something. You need to look around you, see that the world hasn't caved in with you." She put my breakfast on the night stand to my side. I didn't even look at it. I knew the message wasn't over, "Do you think Albert Schweitzer worries about the things that worry you?" This time I took her on, mainly because she brought me breakfast, "Okay, Momma, what am I thinking that's so hard on me?" I asked.
"Yourself," she said, picking up where she'd left off. "You are just caught up with yourself. You know, it's like you walk around with this mental thermometer that you put up your butt every few minutes and pull it out and get a reading. "How am I today? Did that hurt? Am I today as bad as I was yesterday?" And she jabbed me one with her elbow as she sat down on the bed next to me. She laughed lightly, "You see what I mean?"
How could I tell her about what was really happening to me? I didn't know. What was I going to say that would convince her that this hole she saw me in was not some tattoo on my arm that she thought I was wearing around?
This morning while I nibbled at my toast, smearing some thick, hot oatmeal over the top, making a mess she was choosing to ignore, she said, "I got to thinking, you know a lot of women work now and they don't have the time to do their laundry, so why don't we take in laundry and ironing? It will be some way to get your mind off yourself and at the same time earn a little cash. What do you say?" This may sound downright silly now but back then before laundry services were offered in every town with a population of over a thousand, this wasn’t so out of the question. My bafflement wasn’t over the idea. It was over the notion that I’d actually participate in such a thing.
"Laundry ?" was all I could come out with. It sounded like a croak to me.
"Why not?" she said. "In the state you’re in, I don't think you can sit there thinking it's too low a job for you to do. Just look at yourself. Go on. Go to the bathroom right now and give yourself a good look. It's scary what will be staring back at you."
I knew what would be staring back at me, so I declined to take her suggestion. I said instead, "Not that I will do this, Momma, but how do you propose we get the customers?"
"We'll advertise, of course."
"In the paper?"
"Sure. Oklahoma City even, I was thinking. Those rich people up in Nichols Hills probably aren't going to come all the way down to Moore to give us their laundry, but people in the south part of town might. Del City. Midwest City. They’ll even drive up from Norman, it’s only ten miles, after all; I mean, all those professors’ wives? Well, they’re professors themselves, aren’t they, at the university? They don’t have time for laundry. And let me tell you, these people will love hand-iron clothes, a real pressed look, instead of that overly stiff and creased shirts and dresses they get from wherever in the heck they get their laundry done, if not by their maids. C’mon, this’ll work. You'll be surprised."
What I heard was the operative word, “work” and felt like running and not looking back. But instead, I heard myself saying,
"Well, okay. Let's say I say okay to this. I don't know beans about how to iron. I iron for myself, of course. But I don't know how to iron a white shirt or a fancy cotton dress for somebody else."
"I know. But I thought it would be nice to teach you. I know how to iron anything, remember. I worked when you were in high school in that hospital laundry not far from the school actually. Don't you remember when you got the cramps so bad that one day at school and you came in the laundry and we had to take you to emergency where I had that big argument with Dr. Chandler about
whether you should take estrogen or not? They brought you into your room on a gurney and I was almost hysterical and he tried to convince me you should have these hormone treatments? He pushed for that at a time when I was so desperate and scared about you. I was so mad at him when I finally gathered myself enough to realize what he was trying to talk me into. I looked at him and yelled, don't you remember, how I told him he was just like the morticians. Doctors are always trying to get you anymore for their experiments just like the morticians are always trying to get you to buy the biggest and best coffin, when you’re so upset you can’t see straight and don't know what you’re thinking. Listen, I'm on to these guys, was even back then."
"Okay, Momma," was what I got in to stop her. "But you ironed on mangles at the hospital. Ironing with an ordinary iron isn't like ironing on a mangle and besides, you did flat stuff like sheets and operating room covers and ..."
"Oh, we had our share of uniforms and all; but I know what you mean. But, look, I know how to do just about anything with an iron. You see, when I first married your father, I wanted to be the perfect wife. I used to iron the pillow cases and sheets, not to mention the tea towels. I even lightly ironed our underwear. With a cool iron, you know. And not just your father's boxer shorts but my bras and underpants, can you believe it? While I listened to Stella Dallas and Whispering Streets. I probably could still do a Doan's Pills ad word for word if I had to."
"Yeah, I'd say so." I ate another piece of toast smeared with oatmeal.
"Nobody does that anymore but back then our days were filled with ought to's like that. Ordinary tasks seemed somehow elevated by this kind of attention and work. Course your father never noticed unless I couldn't get to it. Then he'd make some coarse remark about what did I do with my time anyhow, just listen to the redio?" She said "radio" like "redio."
"I don't know, Momma. What if I breakdown in the middle of all this and can't finish my share. That's providing we get a lot of work."
"Why don't we come to that when we get there, okay?"
Mother had tried things to get me out of myself before. One of the hardest times was right after I came home from Germany, when I left with Horst to Spain and then took that job in Cologne for International Ford in their manufacturing plant there. I came home in a basket because Horst got scared of me somewhere between Spain and his hometown, and dumped me on this job, where I couldn't understand or speak German enough to know what the hell anybody was saying or telling me to do. When I came home from this, Mother let me sleep a week or two and then tossed me out of bed one morning saying, "Look sunshine, it's getting up and out of yourself time." I was numb and felt the nearest to crazy I'll probably ever feel and she said, "It's hard, baby, I know, but you gotta do something and I've been thinking. Here's the plan. We’re just gonna start driving out in the country every day. Just taking a drive, that's all, but it will get you out of the house and into something else that's going on out there."
And that's what we did. We drove around. We just went out in the country and drove around. Every day for hours. She'd talk to me sometimes like you do to a little kid when you want them to learn things about what's around them. "See that over there," she'd say. "That used to be a garage where they repaired cars, you know. Now it's a restaurant. Can you believe that? How the heck could they get all the grease and exhaust smells out of there to make it into a restaurant? Beats me." When she talked to me like this, she never waited for an answer at first. She just went from one thing to another talking and talking away. Looking back on it, I can't figure out why she didn't get on my nerves. Maybe I was just too numb to care. But I remember getting into it, you know. I'd look out the window and listen to what she was saying and think about it. And after awhile I'd embellish what she was saying, add to it in some way or disagree with it. Mother would reach over and pat my leg every now and then and say, "That's good, honey" or "That's great."
One afternoon after we had been driving around the countryside for months and months, I begin to notice the change in the seasons, not just because it began to get colder and we had to wear heavier clothes in the car and turn on the heater, but I began to notice how the color of the sky looked different, how the grass faded in spots and how the bark on the trees grew darker and tougher in appearance. Mother was remaining quiet more as I just looked out the window. I said to her this one afternoon, "Life is so multi-colored and changing. I mean, the natural color of things changes and the whole atmosphere surrounding us never stays the same. Why don't you think we notice that except in the most superficial ways most of the time?"
"Well," she said. "I think I don't do that. Sometimes I just let all this slide past me like most of us do a lot of the time, but really I have to tell you, that even as a little girl when I played out on our farm, I loved going past the same trees and into the same fields every day, and I noticed changes, even day to day. Some differences, even hour to hour. I loved the animals and their way of just being there. It seemed to me as I watched the birds and squirrels and groundhogs as well as all the farm animals, they had a sort of being into things that we humans lack. A tree changes without….this sounds crazy."
"No," I caught myself saying, "I find this interesting."
"Well, it's like things in nature, if we leave them alone, just don't try to do or be anything other than what they are. They are, you know? And it makes me part of that if I get out a little each day and stand and let it come into me and I just am in it, you know what I mean?"
I made some approving sound, because she got quiet and let me look for myself again. After an hour or so, I realized we had gone far past the perimeters of our other drives and I asked her when we were going to go home. "How would you like to go to my home place?" she asked.
"Drive to Shirly?" I asked in a kind of panic.
"Yes, why not? You’re comfortable, aren't you, and you’re with me and it's only an hour or so longer. Why not?"
"Won't Dad worry?"
"Oh, no. Besides I can call him up the road on our way. I've done these meanderings for years. Once he found out I wasn't doing anything illicit or illegal and that I always returned, he started making his own supper, reading the paper and going to bed."
"I don't know if I can..."
"Honey, you need to relax and trust what you will see and do or you will be at this a long time, this time around."
I didn't say anything but the anxiety was growing in my stomach. "All right," I said quietly.
"Good," she said, stepping on the gas. "We will be there in no time."
As we walked in the fields that afternoon, she told me stories about how she learned about birth and death, about planting and harvest, about sex and love. She told me stories about how she met my father, about her father and his drinking and anger, about her mother and her fear of being alone at night in the darkness on the farm. We stopped to take small twigs from the trees to identify later, snapped dried milkweed pods that showered the afternoon air with white fuzz, and before we left I scooped into a can two handfuls of powdery red shale from the driveway.
"Stains everything when it's wet," Mother said. "We used to make blood out of it when we played."
On the way home, we stopped at a small diner in a little town where the waitress brought our hamburgers on thick plates and we drank our coffee from heavy cups. That night, past the reaches of the stars, I slept in the car seat the rest of the way home.
"I'm not sure why you want to do this again for me, Momma." I said about this ironing proposition.
"You're my daughter," she said. "I love you."
"Well, I know. But it's like it's starting all over again. Each time it happens I feel more scared and uneasy. I think I get past it and here it comes again. I never know if all these efforts will add up to anything."
"But that's the important part to understand, Caroline. You missed something the other times around. You just didn't get it all, you see? So each time you have to go back over it until you get to the part where you are stuck and try it another way."
"I don't seem to get past it though. Whatever it is. I feel like I'm back where I started again."
"Oh, but you aren't. Look how quickly you got through this first part this time. You were up and around in days, not weeks; and it took you only a few days to start walking around outside and going with me to the store for groceries. You are shopping downtown now already. It took months of driving in the country the last time before you felt comfortable out of the house, remember?"
"Momma, what's wrong with me? I'm a grown woman and I can't simply live."
"You are afraid, baby."
"That's crazy. Why do I keep falling apart like this? Why can't I just be like other people, just go out there and do things without suddenly falling apart? It's like a disease. I feel like I suddenly have this terrible something come over me, like an aching, a fever. A terror is what it is. And I can't go on. I have to die like this each time before I can go on. I need to go to a doctor or to a crazy house."
"No, honey," Mother said, sitting down next to me. "You're just mixed up a little yet. It's getting better, surely you see that. And you need to go through this until you don't have to go through it anymore."
"What I need is a doctor, a shrink."
"What do you think a doctor will do for you that you can't do for yourself?"
"Tell me things. Show me things, things I can't see, I don't want to see."
"And what might that be?"
"I don't know, Momma. That's the point."
"More like putting ideas into your head, I think. They did mine."
"You’re just afraid of doctors because you’ve been through this, and you think they didn't help you."
"They didn't help me."
"Okay, but maybe things are different now. They know more now."
"You can go to the doctors if you want, Caroline, and you might get help there for yourself. I didn't, but maybe you can. But this I've learned, it will always get back to the laundry. Always."
"The laundry?" I’m groaning inside.
"It will always get back to everyday things, living an ordinary life. Those who don't are usually running. And those who do, well, they can be running too. It's how you deal with your ordinariness that matters."
"Like everyone has to do their own laundry, is this the lesson for today? Like we can't take it to someone else to do?" When she didn't say anything, I said, "Then why are we thinking about doing other people's laundry?"
"It's not the laundry, like the laundry, washing clothes, you know. It's learning to help yourself, to do for yourself, learning to be in the world alone, for yourself. It will take a shrink a long time to take you to an ironing board and show you how to do a shirt, and that's what you need to learn now."
I felt like screaming and almost did, "I need to learn to iron a shirt to make this craziness stop?
"You need to trust that when, when is an important word here, Caroline, that when you are ironing a shirt, you need to trust that this is what you are."
"Oh, my God, Momma. You are crazy. You are crazier than I am. You’re telling me I have to be Donna Reed?"
She just smiled at me and said, "Caroline, bring me the ironing board from the utility room and go get two of your dad's white shirts out of his closet. And then I want you to go and get that red shale you took from the driveway of my home place that you keep in that can in your room. First I'm going to show you how to iron a white dress shirt step by step and then I'm going to show you how to get a stain out in a way that you will never see it again."