Ironing the Wrinkles of Memory

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‘Knowing how to fold fitted sheets changed my life.’ A not so surprising statement from my traveller daughter on her return from three years in North America. Always organised and house proud, we often joked Anne’s cleaning frenzies bordered on OCD.

However, her announcement about the sheets as she helped me put away the laundry made me laugh and hug her. ‘You’re so like your dad, everything has to be shipshape. You’d have done well in the navy too.’

‘Well it made such a difference when I worked in the Dermatology Clinic in Toronto. We laundered everyday and if sheets are folded properly they’re so easy to put away.’

Anne grabbed another fitted sheet from my dishevelled linen cupboard and proceeded to demonstrate what she meant. Her sea-blue eyes sparkled and she flashed me the trademark smile I’d missed. ‘You’ll see, it’ll change your life too. Now, come and have a go.’

I stood by the ironing board as daughter taught mother. ‘Well, well, well,’ I said with a grin and went through the motions of folding a fitted sheet so it looked as neatly packaged as a normal one. ‘ You can teach an old dog new tricks.’

I stared at the sheets and returned to my 1950s Scottish childhood. Mum, bringing in the washing from the back green and airing it on the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling.

‘Can I help fold the sheets, Mum?’ I said, the ever-eager helper.

‘Aye, love, now take those ends.’ And so I learnt to fold sheets, but not without a lot of laughter because invariably we’d sing:

Shoogly shaggly over the glen

Mammy’s we pet, Daddy’s wee hen –

1,2,3, – out”

I’d have put a doll on the sheet to bounce up and down before being tipped out as we folded the sheet over. This was a common game for adults to play, bouncing a baby or toddler in a blanket. Older siblings amused each other by bouncing younger ones and with peals of laughter and squeals everyone anticipated that last bounce and the tipping onto a bed, mattress or soft grass.

Working class improvisation of a trampoline, I suppose!

I played shoogly shaggly with my girls as well and taught them how to make beds with hospital corners – a skill passed on from my ex-nurse mother. A well-made bed important not just for appearances, but comfort.

Anne snapped me out of my reverie. ‘See Mum, all the sheets fit on the shelves in neat piles?’

‘Aye, love,’ I said, channelling my Mother, ‘and isn’t it wonderful none of them need ironing!’ And so began the proverbial trip down memory lane…

I remember the heavy clunk, as the iron connected with our rickety wooden-framed ironing board. The old-fashioned instrument of my childhood, heavy and cumbersome to use. I remember too, the many burns I received from the iron’s hot silver sides while learning how to iron what seemed to be an endless pile of washing produced by our family of eight.

One particular evening sticks in my mind when my sister Catriona and I shared the weekly ironing pile and counted 64 shirts and blouses! This was the era when gender roles were very clearly defined, most garments were made of cotton, and starched and pressed clothes standard attire.

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Depending on the items and the quantity to be ironed, the ironing board remained folded against the wall of the dinette and the thickness of an old blanket on the Formica kitchen table sufficed. This at least softened the noise and provided a wider surface than the ironing board, circa 1900, inherited from Dad’s mother.

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Mum taught me the necessary skill for domesticity by letting me practice on handkerchiefs, serviettes, pillowcases and tray cloths. Uncomplicated ironing. However, like Erma Bombeck, I avoid the task of ironing now and shake my head in disbelief at memories of begging Mum to ‘let me help’.

Children learn what they live

Dorothy Law Nolte, PhD said children learn what they live and I suppose my introduction and desire to learn household chores such as ironing, emulated Mum. Born in 1953, even if my parents wanted more for me than to be a housewife, the message society broadcast on every level, said girls had to be good at housework. We were baby machines, supportive wives and proud housewives, and should know our place.

This message reinforced when I joined the Brownies, and later Girl Guides, although they also encouraged independence, ingenuity and imagination. My keenness to iron well and progress to more complex items, a necessity, and duly rewarded by various cloth badges to sew on my uniform. I could proudly declare I was a good helper around the house.

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I’ve still got my little brass Elf badge given when I joined and made the Brownie Promise:

I promise to do my best:
To do my duty to God and the Queen
To help other people everyday
especially those at home.

Every week I’d polish my shoes and leather belt, don my brown uniform, brown beret and yellow tie and go to the local community hall to be with the other Pixies in my Brownie pack.

From memory I think one badge, the Busy Bee sported a bright yellow bumblebee. The Thrift badge an easy one to achieve in our working class home because with limited money and many mouths to feed, thriftiness became our family motto.

While the boy scouts wandered the neighbourhood fundraising for ‘Bob a Job’ and chopping wood, weeding or carrying shopping, we were firmly indoctrinated for our role as future wives and mothers.

I made something new out of something old by cutting up an old towelling nappy to make a face-washer and sewed blanket stitch to decorate its new hems. I helped Mum set a fire in the grate, clean out the ashes and fill the coal scuttle. The Homemakers and Laundry Badge involved, cleaning and dusting, setting the table, washing dishes and keeping my shared bedroom tidy (a bone of contention because I shared a bedroom for years). The white picket fence boundaries of the ‘50s well and truly delineated.

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Mum used an electric iron, a far cry from the old pre World War Two flat irons, which had to be heated on the kitchen range. However, the first electric irons had no thermostat, and you tested its heat in the time-honoured way of licking your finger and dabbing the plate, or spitting lightly. The temperature judged from the sizzling of skin or spittle.

The absence of steam irons or iron that squirted water a burden because most clothes were made of cotton or linen and had to be ironed damp for the best result. Drip dry synthetics became popular after the war, made of fabric that did not wrinkle when hung dripping wet to dry to avoid ironing, but in a climate like Scotland, they took a long time to dry and who wanted clothes dripping from the pulley? Early nylon clothes washed and dried with minimum wrinkles could melt if the iron too hot. Mum often removed the clothes from the line before they were quite dry to make the pressing easier.

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When we came to live in Australia, Mum took paid work in Johnson Bros. Pottery, to help save and build our own home. The washing and ironing became a shared chore, particularly when Mum worked regular overtime and Saturday morning shifts.

On many occasions clothes missed the washing cycle and had to be ironed dry if we wanted to wear them to a particular function. Steam rising from clothes straight from the washing machine, a  never to be forgotten smell. If stains from the iron or ironing board cover ruined the  item, the curses colouring the air blue not forgotten either.

Clothes were scorched when the iron over heated, and trousers and skirts developed an unacceptable shine if a damp pressing cloth forgotten (one of Dad’s large handkerchiefs our regular pressing cloth).

In my teenage years, hands and arms bore scars from sears and burns. Reminders of carelessness, lapsed concentration, being too particular, or lacking skill and strength to manipulate the iron around intricate cuffs, collars, folds and pleats.

The smell of pressed wool and linen and damp serge still lingers in nostrils, and years later I wonder if the wear and tear in my shoulder joints date back to the heavy repetitive nature of household tasks such as ironing. Teenage years in the 70s even saw us iron our long hair – no fancy hair straighteners in those days just the revolting smell of singed hair.

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The second hand Hoover washing machine we inherited in Australia was a tiny single tub with a broken spin dryer. It sat on the concrete floor of an unlined, tinned roof, weatherboard outhouse fitted out as a laundry – our very own Turkish bathhouse in summer and Siberian prison in winter. We hooked the clothes from the washing machine and placed them in two huge concrete laundry sinks filled with cold water for rinsing and fed them through a mangle attached to the side of the sink.

The first manual wringer gave arm and shoulder muscles a good workout, but then we went upmarket to an electric mangle. I can’t remember if this was a hand-me-down from one of Aunt Chrissie’s many friends or a bargain Dad found and fixed. In those early days, scrounging became an art form; offers of help never rejected, but taken in the spirit of good neighbourliness. Our maxim ‘one man’s rubbish, another man’s treasure.’

The old fashioned mangles squeezed a lot of the moisture from the clothes reducing the weight and unpleasantness of hanging washing out dripping wet, although some items had to be fed through the hard rubber rollers a couple of times. The electric mangle fascinated ten year old me and in the excitement of feeding clothes through faster to spend more time playing with friends, I often tangled the clothes into bunches, and jammed the machine.

On rare occasions, trying to be too smart or fast, I fed sheets through before removing my hand from their folds. Luckily, the off switch easily reached by connections installed by Uncle Bill McKendrick, a first class electrician. The bruises and pain not so quickly fixed, or my injured pride from the harsh lecture I’d receive from Mum. I hated letting her down by appearing incompetent, aware she felt guilty at not keeping abreast of household chores. Mum and Dad worked incredibly long hours chasing money to pay the rent, put food on the table, and clothe and educate us.

Australia is a paradise for laundering clothes compared to Scotland where inclement weather makes drying clothes outside difficult. I remember washing hanging from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling, or hung over wooden maidens (clothes horses) placed in front of the living room fire. Steam rising as if the clothes were smoking, a common sight in winter. The clothes dried inside always smelled of coal, if dried in the living room, or of the variety of food cooked, when dried in the kitchen.

Pulleys were fixed to the ceiling and lowered by a rope which would be then tied to a hook on the wall to keep it level until loaded with washing. When full, the pulley would be hoisted to near the ceiling. It could hold a lot of washing and Mum used it to air the clothes this way too, even in summer. Depending on what was on the menu, she’d take them down before cooking because the smell of fish could linger for days on clothes.

In the winter, Mum always had a coal fire burning in the living room with the rest of the house unheated unless we were flush with money and could feed the gas heater to heat water piped to upstair rooms with wall radiators. Most working class homes made decisions about heating depending on their budget. My Dad being a railwayman, always had work and took every piece of overtime offered so the coalman topped our bunker up at regular intervals, but even we would have struggled to feed more than one fireplace in winter.

Several neighbours whose husbands worked in the shipyards where work was seasonal and either boom or bust – often ran out of coal . They’d ask Mum if they could borrow a bucket of coal until payday and Mum never refused. There were households where the breadwinner drank heavily or the woman at home had poor or non-existent housekeeping skills. These families suffered all year, especially the Jepson family who lived across the road from us. Not only were they constantly in debt and having to borrow food and fuel, but when the Council inspector did his annual rounds, Mrs Jepson asked to borrow our kitchen cupboard doors because they had burnt theirs when they ran out of coal.

Sometimes damp washing hung on the fireguard, if more drying space was needed. Mum kept an eye on these clothes. A roaring fire generated a lot of heat and a gust of wind down the chimney could send flames awry. Drying washing could be scorched or even set alight. We were alerted to the danger of fire at an early age.

Our neighbours, ‘through the wall’ as Scottish vernacular referred to the close proximity of those who lived in semi-detached council houses,  were Kathy and Jimmy Johnson. They had a daughter Maureen, a few years older than my sister Catriona. We had not long moved to the house in Davaar Road when Mum witnessed a tragic incident she never forgot.

Teenager Maureen received a present of a nightie made out of nylon and lace, synthetic materials grown in popularity since the war. She was brushing her hair in front of the mirror hanging above the mantlepiece when flames flared and licked at her nightie. In seconds, her clothes were aflame, melting and sticking to her body. Her long hair caught alight. Maureen’s screams seared into Mum’s memory, as was the sight of the teenager running outside and throwing herself onto the ground.

Adrenalin kicked in, Mum, scaled the side fence like an Olympian, ordered Kathy to grab the rug from the hallway and throw it over Maureen. Between them they got the fire out. Mum called an ambulance. Luckily, for the Johnsons, we were one of only two families in the street with a telephone connected.

Maureen Johnson spent several weeks in hospital and although most of her scars were hidden, she had to live for the rest of her life with skin like a washer board on her torso. (No pressure suits in those days.)

If ever we ventured too close to the fire or complained about not being hot enough, Mum reminded us of Maureen. She also made sure no matter what house we lived in there was never a mirror above the fireplace.

My younger sister, Rita confesses to enjoying ironing – it’s her thinking time she says and I’m sure other people feel the same. Meanwhile my aversion has continued to grow. Perhaps, Catriona and I had too much ‘thinking time’.

Mum with unexpected visitor and pile of ironing

Certainly, I adopted Mum’s later attitude that ironing was ‘a waste of energy’. Her mantra my daughters know well, ‘the heat of your body will soon get those creases out.’

Ironically, when John and I struggled to pay the mortgage in 1990, a time when our then Prime Minister, Paul Keating said, ‘… this is the recession that Australia had to have,’ I  regularly ironed a mountain of shirts, but this time I was paid by the people who dropped their ironing off and I was grateful!

Nowadays, I check the labels of all clothes –– if there’s special washing or ironing instructions, I don’t buy. Life is too short and there are a lot more pressing (and enjoyable) matters to take up my time!

Who does your ironing?

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cancer is really hard to go through and it’s really hard to watch someone you love go through, and I know because I have been on both sides of the equation.

Cynthia Nixon

This year, as I tiptoe towards 5 years of being clear of breast cancer, the disease seems to haunt me. My dear friend Margaret lost her battle a few weeks ago, another friend is beginning the fight again after being 13 years clear, and I’ve reconnected with a past student because she wanted me to edit what she has written about her battle with depression after her diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard to remain positive and I’m grateful I’ve been able to use my writing as therapy to work through a lot of negativity.

Rainbow in NZ leaving Oamaru

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010 after my 57th birthday mammogram I was stunned into silence – and for anyone who knows me that is a rare state! I’ve been described as chatty, sociable, loquacious and vocal as well as the negative connotations – talkative and verbose!

You can’t plan or know how you will react when you receive a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes silence is the best option until you work out how to knuckle down and get on with the treatment – one day at a time.

Through the several operations, chemo and other treatment my mantra became “This too shall pass.”  I had to survive. My girls had already lost their Dad, it was too soon and they were too young, to grieve over their Mum!

Fortunately, I had friends who had survived. They were only too happy to support me, share their journey, and show me there was a future.

me and Diane

However, chemotherapy takes you to a place you never want to revisit, but you do get through it and recently I found this piece I wrote about my experience.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Mairi Neil

The rows of chairs along the walls face each other like a hairdressing parlour. They are reclining armchairs, not the swivel seats found in salons, but the clientele has a fixation on hair even if fragrant shampoos and conditioners are absent. Everyone aches to be transformed, hopes for some magic from the experts.

Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, wearing trackie pants and t-shirt to be beautified for a glad-rag event later in the evening, I take great care preparing for an all-day stint in the Chemo Room at Cabrini Hospital. Personal grooming necessary to feel good, clothes chosen to lighten spirits. A whiff of antiseptic with metallic and chemical strains assaults the nose and salivary glands, intensified by the pungency of rubber aprons and gloves. Amidst this proliferation of hospital smells, diligent nurses measure each person’s dose of poison for the day.

I’ve massaged copious moisturiser into skin and discharged several sprays of perfume to mask the clinical and industrial odours wafting around the armchairs, where even the white freshness of laundered pillowcases hint at harsh detergents.

Turban or scarf selected with care so I can pretend to be Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain or Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Acetone from the black polish layered on brittle fingernails the night before still teases my nostrils. I hope the effort will save them from disintegration considering the treatment already wreaks destruction on my scalp.

If a real hairdressing salon, I’d sue, but I’m told bald is beautiful and a more common ‘hairstyle’ today than years ago. I’m a reluctant convert.
Nurses squeak a metal trolley over the gleaming waxed floor, a testimony to the courageous cleaners’ care. They too work in this dangerous environment, put themselves at risk of exposure. The waste receptacles of bright purple and yellow, scream danger as I am hooked up to the IV machines beeping loud and insistent as prescribed concoctions are programmed.

I murmur appreciation as the sweetness of mint-scented buttercream drifts from my feet where Marge, a regular volunteer, caresses and smooths. Closed eyes and a huge sigh tunes me out, as valium laced relaxants transport me to a far-off tropical beach. My destination any of the idyllic scenes depicted in the array of paintings decorating walls and softening the harsh reality.

Music flows from my iPod and John Denver reminds me Some Days are Diamonds and Some Days are Stone. Without thinking, I feel where my breast once was and tears well again. Marge senses me tense, encourages me to concentrate on the healing rhythm of her massage – or we could discuss the latest book her bookclub has chosen – have I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel? A joyful book celebrating how reading brings people together, affirming messages about the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In the past, a trip to the local hairdressing salon referred to as a life-saver, but the Cabrini visits have actually saved my life. Each trip I’m challenged by the stories shared by other recipients: tips to adapt to loss, shared fears and tears, deliberate efforts to laugh, and always admiration at the dedication of staff.

Life will never return to what it was before breast cancer and I may never find the person I was, but surgery and chemicals triumphed to keep me alive. Hair regrows and protheses improve – I’ll just dig deeper for the diamond days.

One wonderful diamond day was the night the girls took me to see Neil Diamond. Lost in the music and flanked by Anne and Mary Jane, I swayed to Song Sung Blue and other numbers. The wonderful evening concluded and a complete stranger appeared at our sides. She said, ‘I’ve been watching the love between you three all night,’ she squeezed my shoulder, ‘you’re going to be all right.’

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 There were many random incidents like that – complete strangers coming up to me in the street or in shops and telling me I’d come through the breast cancer and be stronger for it. Supportive friends visited prior to hospital visits to cheer me up, remind me that sisterhood is powerful!

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Courtesy of the ABC, I won a lunch date with NZ cooking guru Annabelle Langbein. I may take her up on an invitation to visit her farm one day!

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I returned to work and coped better after an 8 week stint with Encore, a wonderful program that helped me regain body strength and my equilibrium.

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I walked the Larapinta Trail, camped in the desert, and reflected on my life and future.(The story of this journey still to be published.)  The last day in the desert I texted my daughter: “Yay! I can feel the wind through my hair.”

 My hair almost normal when I farewelled daughter, Anne on her travels to North America in July 2011. Twelve months still to be reached, but the worst was behind me – I hoped. More up-lifting news of  a student achievement award and receiving my master’s degree helped too!

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I ‘m praying nightly that my friend in NZ will come through her cancer’s return and recover quickly to enjoy life again. I pray too this depression and foreboding I feel will pass…

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