h, housework. I had a friend in France, an English friend, refer to it as “mind-numbing housework.” Now I imagine there are those of you who are familiar with the Zen Masters’ approach to, say, washing dishes, which is to hold the dish as though you were bathing the baby Buddha. Personally, I don’t get it. Plate / Buddha? No. At least I have never heard about ironing the Buddha, happily, because that would be dangerous. And ironing is what I want to talk about today: the lost art thereof, an excellent compliment I received thereupon, and a literary mother/ daughter bond involving, could it be, ironing?
One remedy for housework is to hire somebody to help you. Little announcements abound at the local grocery store, where the aisles are so jammed in that only one person can pass at a time. This was a problem when you were studying the dairy offerings, and somebody was trying to get behind you while you were looking for sour cream and wondering how that would be in French (crème aigre?). But then you think vin-aigre is the word for vinegar, so aigre can’t be right. Crème fraiche was on offer, whatever that was, so in the basket it went!
Via her phone number on a little card in that store Elysane came into our lives. When she arrived, a young Black woman with a gorgeous smile, she introduced herself, saying that she came from a certain country: Ah-ay-tea. I don’t know that, I said. Oh, but you do, she told me. I went over it in my mind and said it slow, then fast to myself. “Haiti!” That was it.
There is the conundrum when you hire somebody in France: do you fill out the paperwork so that money is paid into their retirement account and, as importantly, their insurance account in case of any accident? Elysane did not want that and asked to be paid twice a month under the table or noir, as the French call it. In the course of working for us, she married and had a baby. She never, though, gave us her address, even after all those years, which suggests she didn’t have the right paperwork, or her husband didn’t, to be in France legally.
I don’t think she’d had a lot of experience housecleaning because she was so thorough that the number of hours we’d agreed upon came and went, and she routinely wasn’t finished. We worked out the time per room, but I don’t think she was ever comfortable with what seemed to her rushing through. I would sometimes iron while she worked, and she once told me that she had never seen anybody iron as fast as I did.
Well, this was a spectacular compliment. My housekeeping past had not been stellar. When I was a child, every Saturday we’d had chores. (Even if we went to a friend’s house, we had their chores.) My mother tried a few things with me. Vacuum the downstairs, she’d say. I dragged that canister from room to room. And afterwards my mother would ask my younger sister to re-vacuum. Frankly, I thought that was rather rude. I don’t know if you could tell your mother she was rude. I certainly could not.
One day, in a last desperate attempt to bring me into the housekeeping fold, my mother set out the ironing board. She put my father’s shirt on it. Here’s the order: iron the inset across the back first; then collar—underside and top side; then front shirt shoulders; any pockets; the button plackets (the one holding the buttons and the one with the buttonholes); then the back of sleeves, then the front of sleeves; then the two parts of the shirt front; and finally, the back of the shirt. My mother was a genius to break the task down this way. Otherwise, when I would ask if she needed help, she would look at me and say, don’t you see what needs doing? It pains me to admit that I had no clue.
I would like to tell you that it does not take a rocket scientist to follow those steps. And I was apparently successful. My sister never ironed after me.
I opened the Book Review from the NYTimes and there, larger than life was the face of Tillie Olsen. Now you might be asking what this has to do with the price of tea (Ah-aye-tea—oh, dear, very bad word association) in China. Featured in a series called, “The Americans. Writers Who Show Us Who We Are,” she is the author of a short story collection entitled, Tell Me a Riddle, stories that have to do with, wait for it, “lyrical bulletins of working-class family life, charged with emotional detail and delivered with an attention to the rhythms of consciousness more rigorous and powerful than most of what is called realism,” according to A.O. Scott.
And of course one of the stories is called, “As I Stand Here Ironing.” In the story, a mother is asked to come to school to talk about her wayward daughter. And the rhythms of her thinking settle into the back and forth of the iron. It’s a heartbreaking story about a mother whose husband left her, and she found herself unable to care for the young child, so she sent her away for a time. Here’s the pdf
And in one of those unlooked-for moments of housework harmony between a mother and daughter often on the outs with regard to that subject, one evening in Geneva, NY, Tillie Olsen came to Hobart and William Smith Colleges to give a reading. I’d invited my mother to go, and she’d accepted. It was very satisfying to hear Tillie Olsen reading about ironing since these are the two things I was most known for in my household growing up, reading and ironing.
Olsen has a story about a black girl and a white girl whose friendship suffers due to what’s called “racial sorting.” She also chronicles a kind of family saga in her other work, where a bright young woman is gifted books by a neighbor to make her “live” rather than “exist”. One of the books given by the neighbor in Olsen’s story is by William Blake. You remember him, the author of “The Little Black Boy” from his collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Now remember, this inclusion of Blake is by a writer involving herself in “lyrical bulletins of working-class family life.” In the controversy surrounding Louise Glück’s use of that poem, where a white poet assumes the voice of a black child, I think we risk overlooking Blake’s virtues. I think he’s included in Olsen’s book because he was a visionary, a defender of children and a defender of workers. Just as in the other Blake poem, “The Little Black Boy,” the consolation in “The Chimney Sweeper” is bittersweet, if not ironic.
The following video has the two poems of “The Chimney Sweeper,” the first from Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” (1789) and the second from his “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” which contains both poems (1794). This trope or the continuum between innocence and experience is central to literary studies since it accounts for coming of age, and for seeing things in a more nuanced aware way, incorporating both joy and suffering. Blake was writing during the Industrial Revolution when there were no child labor laws, or really any laws protecting labor.
Blake certainly works with the trope of the garden in his work Songs of Innocence and of Experience. We fall out of innocence, you could say, yet these children haven’t yet articulated this because they are still in a state of innocence.
Another trope is the role of fate, and I think Beckett plays with this idea when we have the second two characters arrive on stage: Lucky, the slave, who is leading the master, first appears in the play with a rope loosely around his neck. Pozzo, who is holding the rope and refers to Lucky as a slave, also credits Lucky for helping uphold his (Pozzo’s) reason. It’s intriguing that the roles between the two men were once reversed. Fate is a slippery thing here. And they both suffer, just as the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, just as we, and Tillie Olsen’s characters and even the Buddha and the Zen Masters do. I appreciate this play for not skating over suffering even in its hilarity in other places.
It’s oddly comforting.