But there is something to ironing a shirt. The precision, the care, the time it takes. makes me focus for just a little bit on nothing, and everything all at once. I pulled out the board this morning, heated up the iron, adding water to make steam puff about me as I lay the shirt across the smooth pad. I thought I would just hit the collar, maybe the front placket with a small amount of care, and I could be on my way.
Then I saw that the yoke was a little funky, so I ironed the collar, back then front, and tugged the yoke around the tip of the board first one shoulder then the next. As I was flipping the shirt, attempting to go straight for that front button placket I saw that the sleeves really didn't look very smooth at all, especially where they met with the now ironed yoke, so then I did the sleeve, and the other, and by the time I finished those sleeves, I had decided to just finish the entire shirt. It is now pressed and hanging in my closet. After all that I wore something else today.
Some people will never iron. They will pay someone else to do it, they will wear different kinds of shirts, their parents will iron their shirts for them, they will wear a uniform that comes ironed from their employer. Or they will live somewhere or have a trade that means that ironing will never occur to some people at all.
As much as ironing a shirt appears to have a begininning, a middle and an end, there's really always some little piece that can be touched up, or something that gets wrinkled as you unwrinkle another part of it. It is a battle where no one wins or loses, truly, but at some point you must just tell yourself to stop, and be done with it. There is a brief period of satisfaction after it has been ironed, but before it is worn, when the shirt hangs there, on the curtain rod or the back of the door, or off the ironing board itself, when it looks like everything is 'set.' It feel like preparations have been made, and the weapons for battle have been assembled. There is a confidence standing there in front of the shirt that you have completed something, at least this one time, completed the task, and you are now fully prepared for whatever comes next.
Of course the whole point of ironing the shirt is to have it look good on the person who is wearing it. But no matter how crisp the shirt, how perfectly creased the lines from shoulder to cuff, you cannot change the person who wears it. No amount of starch can build a backbone, or infuse a trodden mind with fortitude, even as it might be able to hide your indifference, because an ironed shirt does somehow say that you tried, that you care, just a little.
The irony in ironing a shirt at all, is that no matter how perfect it looks, how well it drapes across the shoulders and smoothly lays down the front of our chest, the minute you go back to "life" with its demands to sit, or stand, or wear a jacket, or get in a car, or hold a baby, or comfort a friend with an arm about their shoulder, or give a kid a deep, deep pressure hug so they feel safe and grounded... life will make that shirt wrinkly as if it had never been ironed, never been slaved over for some number of minutes to make it look just right. All of your work will immediately be undone and though you did what you needed to do, you will not be able to make the shirt look as smooth and unhindered as it was just hours before.
At the end of the day, the ironed shirt, with all of the ways it was used as you went through the paces of your life, the shirt will just be tossed right there into the laundry basket, along with undershirts and underwear, and dirty socks, and pillowcases. There will be no distinction for the shirt just because it looked better than the other garments at some point of the day. No special place of honor just because it started out with special treatment. When it comes down to it, it will be dirty at the end just like all the rest.
And then it will be waiting to be washed and worn another day. Any time you want to start all over again.
"I Stand Here Ironing" is a short story by Tillie Olsen. It was published in her short story collection Tell Me a Riddle in 1961.