When I was seven or eight — old enough to stand up and pay attention when an elder spoke in an authoritative voice — Aunt Jeannette taught me how to iron a shirt. The occasion was the funeral of my maternal grandmother.
Various relatives were staying in the family homestead at 17 Wilson Street in Struthers, Ohio. It was my archetypal house, white frame, two stories, laundry chute, front porch with gliders, gauzy curtains on the windows, and any house with an address of less than four digits was undeniably very special.
I remember the adults scurrying around, as I later learned was the behavior of people preparing to go to a funeral. I was trying to iron a shirt in a haphazard way, even though I was not invited to the funeral. In the 1950s, children, at least in my subculture, were not permitted to see dead bodies in caskets. Perhaps Aunt Jeannette was nervous. Well, Aunt Jeannette was always nervous, twisting and turning her tall, thin body like a preening heron. She certainly was perplexed, standing there watching me ironing.
She took the shirt and marched me through the method. Always iron the collar first, then the yoke. Iron the right, then left sleeve, front and back sides of each. Position the shirt so the upper right front is flat on the ironing board and iron that portion. Swing the shirt around to likewise position and press the upper left front. Now place the left placket on the board and pull it taut to iron it. Whether there are buttons on the left (female) or right (male) placket will depend on the gender of the shirt. Iron the remainder of the left front. Pull the shirt forward, smoothing and ironing the leading portion of the back and continuing to iron the rest of the back. Pull the shirt again to position the right front on the board, then iron the right placket, not forgetting to pull it taut. As for the buttons, treat them as an archipelago, carefully maneuvering the prow of the iron between each island but also pressing hard. Being two folds of fabric, the placket needs extra heat and force.
I suspect few people these days know the architecture of a shirt and even fewer iron them. Not me! Aunt Jeannette’s lesson has guided my life and may also explain why I wear cotton and linen — it is an excuse to iron. Sometimes I iron a shirt to calm down. I never iron a shirt without thinking of Aunt Jeannette.
She was the odd aunt who married my Uncle Rusty, so called for his red hair that turned white during his service in World War II. His siblings, who adored him, and their spouses, and their offspring, who included me, always twittered about Aunt Jeannette but we embraced her. She was an intrinsic part of the family, and while we thought we had license to twitter, no one else did. Among her quirks was her birdlike appetite. From my earliest memory she only ate nuts and other small handfuls of food.
They never had children. I do not know why. Their decision or inability was a boon to the nieces and nephews. Every Christmas of my childhood, Aunt Jeannette and Uncle Rusty sent me and my sister, Peggy, each a book. My mother early-on instilled a love of reading in her two daughters. Her brother and his wife simply made it clear that there is no better gift than a book.
In their retirement, Aunt Jeannette and Uncle Rusty spent some years on the Florida coast where they both became knowledgeable about sea shells. I like to think this shared interest was a clue to a mysteriously happy marriage that onlookers could not fathom. Through parsimony and planning and caring about family, they saved money. He died. Quite some years later, she died. Through their bequest, I inherited approximately $24,000. This was enough to pay cash for a 2010 4WD Toyota Tacoma that has taken my husband, David, and me into some very remote and rugged parts of Mexico. I ironed a shirt today.