Josna Rege

171. Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron

In Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Work on January 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of the linen-o

Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.
Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron (English folk song)

kitchen windowsill

kitchen windowsill

Doris Lessing once wrote that although many of our lives have changed out of all recognition, women still respond emotionally to the way things used to be. For me, that translates into deriving great pleasure from tasks that I hardly have time for anymore, time-honored (and alas, time-consuming) household rituals like washing (drying, ironing, and folding) clothes by hand; tasks that, however tedious, my mother carried out with a spring in her step and a song on her lips.

There is something deeply satisfying about hanging out the wash on a warm, breezy summer’s day with a basket of clothes pegs on my arm, then bringing it back in from the line fresh and sweet-smelling; scrubbing down the worn wooden window sill in the kitchen and filling my favorite posy vase with a small bunch of flowers from the farm; later in the summer, setting out a row of half-green tomatoes to ripen on that same windowsill; lighting a stick of Nag Champa incense and carrying it from room to room to infuse each one with its purifying essence.

When I have the rare luxury of a leisurely day to prepare a multi-course meal from scratch, cooking brings me this kind of pleasure, as I slip my dear friend Marianne’s jainkyrshah, the traditional cotton-check Khasi apron (its Khasi name literally meaning “cloth to cover-and-protect”) over my head and plunge into the work with a will. I love paying close attention to the timing of all the dishes, grating and grinding the fresh spices, running out to the kitchen garden to pick sprigs of mint or thyme, throwing a fresh tablecloth over the dining table, and setting out the dishes, remembering when and where I came by each one.

Khasi cook wearing jainkyrshah (

Khasi cook wearing jainkyrshah (

Even chores without a shred of romance to them can give pleasure in this way. When Nikhil was a baby I was determined to use cloth diapers, despite the near-universal use of disposables at that time and the total absence of a diaper service anywhere near us in Winchendon. I managed to pull together a supply of fresh cotton ones for everyday use and my Auntie Bette sent me a pack of thick towelling English nappies that I used at night. I enjoyed changing time: folding and pinning the diaper (without pricking the baby) was a daily challenge, a three-dimensional, interactive origami. And somehow, the knowledge that cloth diapers were the healthiest for the baby and that I was carrying on a traditional practice in the face of a prevailing one that was time-saving but horribly wasteful, gave me a sense of pride and continuity, linking me to generations of women around the world.

Ironing is one of those time-consuming tasks that can be redeemed by recalling its role in generations of women’s lives. I have an ancient  ironing board that folds down out of a narrow cupboard built into the wall. Andrew found it in Brookline years ago, outside an old Victorian house that was being gutted and remodeled, and brought it home for me. In the United States ironing seems to have gone almost completely by the board, but in England it still seems to be alive and well even among the younger generation, if the Facebook pages of my cousin Sue’s daughters are anything to go by. I can’t swear that anyone actually enjoys the process of ironing itself, but I rather like the idea of it, and can attest to the satisfaction of getting it over and done with. I must confess that I am always extremely grateful, on my visits to India, to be able to send my saris out to be ironed.

khadi saris drying on the back veranda in Ratnagiri

khadi saris drying on the back veranda in Ratnagiri

When I have a few days off, especially when a teaching year has drawn to a close, there is nothing I want to do more than to turn to my long-neglected house and give it a thorough spring-cleaning: to put away those dark, heavy winter work clothes and bring out my summer cottons; retire the storm windows and slide the summer screens into place; fetch the fans down from the attic and wash their blades; spread fresh-cut tansy plants in the kitchen window-wells to ward off ants; and dig down to the very bottom of the old cane laundry basket to retrieve and reclaim that pile of delicate items that I haven’t had time to wash by hand.

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  1. Lovely entry, Josna! I was just feeling bad about having spent the morning doing laundry and sorting my pantry instead of doing school work. And it’s so nice to be reminded of the pleasure and balance these small daily tasks bring, especially on a sunny day after few days of cloud and rain. Thinking of you and wishing you a happy new year! ~Swati

    • Happy New Year to you, Swati! Lovely to hear from you. Yes, pleasure and balance, both key. Hope your teaching term (quarter? semester?) is off to a good start and that you’re both enjoying your students and colleagues and finding time for yourself. And glad you’re taking time to make your new place home. x J

  2. Yes, those homey chores can be a pleasure, except when done on someone else’s timetable! I find that I like a lot of the tasks of daily living. I remember about 20 years ago or so standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, with some really good music on the cd player, looking out at a sunny day, and thinking, “This is just perfect.” On the other hand, while I’m quite good about dishes and laundry, I’m terrible about vacuuming and dusting, so my domesticity is actually rather narrowly selective! And unlike you, I’m not good with plants.

    • Sarah, I love that image of you washing dishes to music and that “all’s right with the world” feeling. A few years ago some friends gave me a little piece on washing dishes by Thich Nhat Hanh from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. I had it on my fridge for a long time and can’t find it now, but just tracked it down online:

      While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance this might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves. (pp.3-4, 1976)

      There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first way is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second way is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.(p.4)

      If while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.’ What’s more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes….If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. (pp.4-5)

      I have the same cleaning likes and dislikes as you do! And I’m not good with plants either, though I try to remember to keep the poor plants we’ve brought indoors for the winter watered at least. x J

  3. Dear JoJo,

    Loved this TMA post, and loved the pictures of your window at the farm and the saris in Ratnagiri. I am an avid ironer. I know that many people wear their cotton and linen clothing fresh from the dryer and all wrinkled up, but somehow ironing brings out the true nature of the fabric, and I love to smooth it out and watch it fully become its real self. I find great satisfaction in handling fabric. My friend Nancy Halpern is part of a quilting group, and when things don’t go well for them, they go to someone’s house and get out all the fabric remnants and iron them and fold them and pat them, and it makes them feel much better. Love, s

    • Sally! Thank you for testifying to your love of ironing! Just hearing about your friends getting together and ironing, folding, and patting the fabric remnants, made me feel better. Most of all, I loved your description of crumpled cloth coming into its own as you iron it. As I received your comment, I was just taking a pile of linen table napkins out of the dryer, and realized that I hadn’t mentioned it in the story but I always iron table linen. So I put the napkins aside for the next time I am able to iron them. As I run the hot, steamy iron over them I will luxuriate in the linen “smoothing out and becoming its true self.” Your comment also reminded me anew of something you once said to me when I showed you a woven Mexican poncho that I had been given for a present. Although you admired the artistry of the weaving, it pained you that they had had to use polyester thread, so that the wonderful traditional work(wo)manship created a crude, rough product which, for all its beauty, didn’t feel good to the touch, pilled easily, and hung awkwardly and stiffly when worn. I shall think of you next time I do the ironing. Love, J x

  4. I do enjoy ironing now, particularly with this lovely new spray starch! My dresses for Namma’s Little Ladies are all ironed like this and I love the way it leaves the sewing room smelling so fresh.
    I can dream of little girls running around in these freshly ironed dresses and playing in the park or garden in their matching headbands or hats.

    Spring is springing around here!

  5. […] 171. Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron […]

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