This one is in honor of Nebraska Filly and ZooNTexas. Please, let me slip my arm around your shoulder and give you a tight squeeze. Grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and let me tell you a story.
One bereaved or angry person can ruin the spirit in a room or a group. Most often, it has nothing, whatsoever, to do with us. We’re merely in the line of direct fire. Often, we quickly ascertain something is wrong, and we shun that person. We stay away from conflict. No – wrong. Don’t take offense. Run to the conflict. Be the firefighter or LEO to a friend. Figure out what it is. Dig deep. Let them rail at the stars and get it out. Free them.
For example, if you and your spouse are arguing, fiercely, about whether to have chicken or salmon for dinner, I guarantee, you’re not arguing about what to have for dinner. Figure out the source of the problem, and fix it, no matter how long it takes. Eventually, put your baggage into a suitcase and toss it, or give it up to a higher power as a great, unsolved mystery. Life is too short to live in black sludge.
In life, we can hold on to anger, betrayal, resentments, slights, or we can purge it all and live in the sun. No matter how grievous the pain… no matter how long the process to move through the grief, find someone to help you and hold on tight. What we cannot do, is carry the pain, or the grudge, to our death. If we hang onto it, we rot from the inside, and the rest of humanity is cheated out of our natural gifts. It’s a crime against humanity! We poison everything around us. We become the human version of a legit EPA Superfund Sight = Toxic. Our opponent wins. To hell with that idea. Choose to live!
Let’s start with small steps. Little things. Daily chores. We can work up to bigger problems as we gain strength. We all, at times, have to do chores we would rather not. Okay. We can either have fun while we work, or we can gripe and moan. It’s all about attitude and the will to survive. We CAN have fun going to the grocery store, getting gas, mowing the lawn, or even, ironing!
My mother was consumed with demons, bitter and miserable her entire life. I was lucky, however, and had a dad who could make small mundane tasks seem like fun. He was the sun. And like our tree of refuge, I leaned into the sun for those brief happy moments. I chose to follow his path. He passed his spirit to me, and I passed it to my son and stepdaughters. Yet, I had no idea where his spirit came from….. or that it was born from misery, buried deeply.
We moved from Chicago to New Orleans when I was 10, and our house wasn’t quite finished by the contractor. In August, Dad and I laid sod in the yard. Being from the north, we weren’t used to the humidity. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever again been that hot. Sweat ran down my arms and legs like a river, and a curious thing, collected on my eyelashes. Yet, we drank a gallon of Iced Tea and played in the hose. We had a wonderful day, and we proudly finished the job. We were foul, nasty, smelly, stinky, and could not have been happier.
When I was a little older, I learned my Dad’s great attitude came from his parents, Grandma Della and Grandpa Earl. If I look back on old photos, my Grandfather is ALWAYS smiling, beaming. His eyes sparkle, as if he was the one who ate the proverbial canary. He was notoriously mischievous. I recall family meals where we laughed so hard, my stomach, rib muscles, would hurt for days afterwards. Grandma Della even made ironing enjoyable…., which is hard to do…, but this story will break your heart and then, make your heart soar.
It’s all about ironing, birds, and the source of great pain, and the purest form of love.
I was 21, finishing college (the first time), and had accepted a job in Manhattan. Thrilled with the opportunity, I was feeling big and bad, full of “femme” power, ready to shake off the dusty little town in Mississippi, and move to the big city. My wardrobe was updated, new luggage purchased, and I was brushing up on my Cosmopolitan Magazine. My attitude needed a gut check, and I got it that day, in the most humbling of ways.
During college, I lived with my grandparents, which was good for them, me, and a lot of fun for us all. One day, midweek, I came home from work for lunch, and Grandma was ironing in the kitchen. I gathered my triscuits. cheese, and leftover grilled chicken, and slid into the deacon’s bench to eat and talk to her. I was staring out the big bay window at the bird feeders when a Chickadee landed. A Chickadee was rare, and I prompted Grandma to look. “Grandma Violet came to visit!”, I said. Chickadees always reminded my grandmother of her mom, but I never knew why…., until that day.
Grandma Della had quite an extraordinary process for ironing. The ironing board was a metal contraption left over from the war (WW2) and weighed almost as much as my grandmother. Grandpa would set it up for her on ironing day. She would wash Grandpa’s white shirts in hot water, Tide and bleach, then, rewash them, with starch added to the mix. She would take the shirts out of the washing machine, straighten them, and roll them up, placing them in a leftover, clean, Wonder Bread wrapper…… and put them in the lowest shelf of the fridge to chill. A “chilled shirt on a hot iron, made the shirt more crisp”, she claimed.
I was watching my grandmother labor in this process and I noticed she closed her eyes when she was almost done with the shirt. She murmured something, spread her hands, eyes still closed, the length of the shirt. Satisfied, she opened her eyes, hung it up, and moved on to the next one. I bit into a triscuit, and watched her. The kitchen was cozy and smelled fresh with the steam from the iron. She did the same thing several times. Breaking the silence but with my mouth full, I asked her what she was doing. Of course, like all 21 year olds who think they know better, I interrupted her before she could speak. I asked, “Why, on earth, don’t you take the shirts to the cleaners?” After all, they could afford it, and it would save her time. She stopped, glared at me, and physically recoiled, as if I had accused her of murdering the neighbor.
She said, “I don’t want to tell you.” What? Huh? Grandma told me everything! I didn’t know she had any secrets. For the first time ever, I looked at my grandmother like she was another woman, not my grandmother. I lowered my voice and sincerely asked her to please, tell me. She sighed deeply, stalling, big breath in and out, and looked at me hard. Whatever was coming, I had the sense it was big.
She told me that she said a small prayer over every shirt she ironed for my grandfather. To her, it was his suit of armor. It was his shield placed BY HER, to keep him safe, throughout his day. She felt that her love, with a little help from God, would protect him…. I could feel the tears sting my eyes. Her love for my grandfather was like a mountain.. like a whole range of mountains.
She pointed at me for emphasis. She reminded me how she always hugged her husband and told him she loved him before he left. She sternly warned me, “You should never (still pointing) take anything for granted, anyone you love can be gone in a flash.” She gestured to the window dismissively, and flatly stated, “Chickadees were not my mother’s favorite, they were my father’s favorite.” She hardly ever spoke of her real father. I knew my great-grandfather died when she was young. My great-grandmother remarried a man named Ross, and they were married for 30+ years. Apparently, my great-grandmother was not feeling well one morning and my great-grandfather let her sleep in when he went to work. He died that day and my great-grandmother never had the chance to say goodbye, to kiss him one more time. It haunted her and Chickadees were a reminder. My grandmother explained, “Chickadees were like a good but bittersweet ghost, who had returned for one final kiss goodbye, just a quick peck on the cheek”. My grandmother, as a young girl, understood, life was precious… and she still missed her father. No wonder she hugged me so hard every time we parted.
The story she told made her tear up. Her grief bubbled to the surface as if it were fresh, although 50 years prior. I comforted her, for the first time, our roles reversed. We embraced and she sobbed on my shoulder. I understood her in a new way never thought possible. She never spoke of her father’s death, and she desperately needed to talk about it. I was astonished at the way she turned her fear of death, into ‘extra’ love for her family and friends. She turned her grief into a positive, without knowing it. It was a ‘thing’ in our family. We always hugged, kissed goodbye, and told each other we loved them when we were separated. As a kid, it sometimes made me impatient. Now, I understood why.
From then on, grandma and I were closer than ever before, not as a familial obligation, but as two people who cared about each other deeply. Gut check to me was received. Priorities reset. I was humbled, a little bit wiser, and grateful.
The years flew by as I whizzed through Manhattan and Miami, finally cashing out to return home. I married and found myself ironing shirts for my first husband. They were work shirts with blue or brown collars, but they were immaculately pressed. No fridge treatment for me, however. My first husband asked me, “Why in the hell don’t you let me take them into the laundry service.” I refused but was reluctant to tell him why. He finally prodded it out of me one day, and he thought I was silly. I still ironed his shirts no matter how gruff he was – and I added a little prayer for patience.
Flash forward a few years.
We bought the big house and turned it into a B&B. I did about 80 loads of laundry every week, and always ironed the pillow cases and top sheets – light starch. We turned one of the bedrooms into a larger laundry room because I spent so much time on laundry. I moved in a television so I could watch stock reports (old habit from the brokerage days), and a couple of comfy chairs. We also bought an old ironing MANGLE, with foot pedals, so I could do linen and sheets in one pass. Blue jeans came out beautifully when run through the MANGLE. I had the system of “laundry” just about perfected…. but I needed music to soothe my soul.
A few months later, my first husband rewired sets of speakers with a big switcher. We could broadcast music to different places, central hall, upstairs hall, kitchen, laundry, side porch, and powerful waterproof Bose speakers for the backyard. The switcher was rather complicated and I didn’t really pay attention. I put in Tina Turner or AC/DC when I ironed. Unknown to me, the outside speakers were on the whole time. Teachers at the school got to the point where they knew I was ironing….. because Tina was blaring. Embarrassing, but I made friends.
We live next to the school and my girlfriends would stop into my kitchen after dropping off their kids for leftover coffee and to chat. After about an hour, one girlfriend mentioned she had to go home and iron…. she was whining about it, too. Another girlfriend joked, her husband’s “iron pile” has been in the same position for 3 months. She ignored the iron pile. Another girlfriend piped up about the drudgery of ironing. They were all downtrodden, accumulating their purses, keys, and putting empty coffee cups in the sink… leaving……. when I had an idea.
“Wait a minute”, I said, “How about you all go home and get your ironing and we’ll do it together!” They stopped and looked at me like I lost my mind. I continued, “Because of the B&B, I have irons and ironing boards in every room, plus mine downstairs. That’s five irons, ironing boards, plus the Mangle.” I said, “It makes sense. Instead of you being alone and miserable, we can get our ironing done together and be happy.” They were looking at each other, waiting for a signal….., few moments of silence…….., when one girlfriend said, “I’ll make Bloody Mary’s – we can iron and drink!” The idea was sold.
We laughed and cackled all day – ironing. We laughed until our sides split. We got ‘tickled’ and slapped at each other. Belly laughs. Laughing to the point where you beg to stop and stomp your feet. Laughing until you have to pee. Laughing so hard you have to leave the room to catch a breath. It was great. Someone made sandwiches and while we were eating, I told the story of Della, my grandmother, ironing for my grandfather, creating a suit of armor for him, and a love so deep, so big, like mountains. We cried like babies. I told them about the Chickadees, and the ghost returning for one more kiss goodbye, and we cried more. All my girlfriends knew her. Della was a community grandma.
For years, about once a month while the kids were in school, we got together to iron. We always made a “special” drink and sometimes a “casserole event” for lunch. The husbands knew, eye-rolled, “It was ironing day”. The kids became jealous and wondered what we did on those days. Finally, we decided all the kids would just gather at our house, snacks for all, until we were finished. In that way, the kids felt like they were part of our secret club – The Ironing Club.
I was at a wedding when a pregnant young woman approached me who was new to town. She asked me if she could come and iron with us. She had “heard stories”. “No kidding…”, I said. I threw my arms around her and hugged her big, “Of course, you can come and iron!”. She needed a little bit of Grandma Della love. She was accepted immediately and her baby was born into a clan of cave bear moms. It made her better and it made us better.
We burned a few shirts over the years, sure, but we mended things and saved them as well. We taught each other countless tips and worked together to get a job done, just like dad and I laid the sod. We didn’t just whistle while we worked, we sang loudly. We danced with a zeal, enough to make Tina Turner proud. Above all, we laughed. More than anything else, we laughed.
Over the years, all of us suffered hardships, some suffered intolerable pain and loss. There were deaths, divorces, the death of one child, and coincidentally, we were all together, in the laundry room, watching television, when the planes struck the World Trade Center. Somehow, being together, made it less painful. We knew, whatever happened, we would face it together. We would survive, and eventually, we would laugh and dance, once more.
So, the next time you iron, think about the person who will wear the item, and say a little prayer, or wish them well. It won’t hurt you. I promise. If you see a Chickadee this spring, smile, and remember Grandma Della. Do we ever have enough kisses for those we love? Wouldn’t we all want just one more kiss before we said goodbye?
And here’s a hint. You might not have to look so hard for a deep and profound love, like a mountain range…… it might be right under your nose.