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Things My Grandmothers Taught Me; 'Granny Maxims' for Growing Girls

by Julia Sneden

You mean you still iron?  There were chuckles and gasps of horror from the small group of women. 
     I havent ironed in twenty years, said Meg.
      Margaret just shook her head. Its more like 40 years for me, she said. 
      Well, said Anna Claire, who at 40 was the baby of the group, Ive never even owned an iron. 
      There have been many times in my life when I felt out of touch with the modern world. Living through the teenage years of three children left me feeling positively antediluvian. Having to learn, unlearn and relearn four or five different computer systems during the past 20 years hasnt done much for my self-esteem, either, especially when my kids get it all so swiftly. But ironing? It never occurred to me that ironing was evidence of being out of step with modern times. Apparently the rest of the world sends cotton shirts out to the laundry, these days. Not this old-fashioned (not to say retrograde) woman.
      Not only do I iron; I actually enjoy it. Handling the clean clothes, smoothing them on the board, gliding the hot iron as the steam hisses up around it, seeing the pristine, unwrinkled surface one has brought into being, is for me a sensual pleasure. I like the smell of the warm fabric. I like the appearance of the finished product. I like the muffled clunk of a well-placed iron. I like the tactile involvement of the smooth strokes. I like the fact that I can iron and listen to music or a news program at the same time. I like the fact that while Im ironing, I can stand still. (Mind you, I like it best when I dont have to do it more than once in awhile. If I had to do it every week, as we did in the old days, I might be less enthusiastic).
      My grandmothers taught me how to iron. In our multi-generation household, my parents or occasional hired helpers did the physically challenging work like gardening, vacuuming, window washing, carpentry, cooking, and laundry. My grandmothers and great aunt did less active things like polishing silver, ironing, setting the table, dusting, and drying the dishes. (Guess who washed the dishes as soon as she was tall enough to reach the sink.)
      Ironing was a joint effort. The two grandmothers took turns, one each washday, while my great aunt read aloud to them. I would hang out nearby, just to hear my Aunt Martha read, usually from The Saturday Evening Post or The Atlantic Monthly. She could have read the telephone book, and Id have listened. Her voice was light and gentle, and her diction precise without being fussy. Listening to her put me into a kind of trance, and at times my skin would actually tingle.
      Our ironing board was affixed to the wall behind a tall, narrow, white door. When the door opened and the board came down, there was another, tiny board behind it which could also be unfolded as needed for small items. My minds eye still sees my grandmothers pressing the little puffed sleeves of my 1940s school dresses on that small board, working them gently around to get the maximum puff without pressing in a wrinkle.
      I remember the very first things I was allowed to press: a batch of our damask dinner napkins. There wasnt a whole lot you could do wrong in pressing a napkin, but I managed to do it. I ironed over a stain that the washing machine hadnt removed. When my grandmother saw it, she explained that one should never iron a stain. Ironing only set it. The preferred response was to rewash the napkin. If the stain persisted, Grandmother gave it a good scrub with salt and lemon juice, and put the napkin out in the sun. After a day of bright California sunshine, the spot was gone. Lemon juice, salt, and sun have been my method of choice for treating stains on white things, ever since. They work better than any pre-wash, bleach, or spot remover Ive ever tried.
     There are many other things my grandmothers taught me. I remember learning how to hang out wet laundry on our clothes reel, beginning with small items in the center, and working around the circle so that large things like sheets and towels were on the longer, outside lines. You had to be sure you gave each item a good shake before pinning it up. Shirts were to be hung upside down by the side seams. Pants were hung from the waist unless you put them on a pants stretcher. You had to remember to go out and bring in the things to be ironed while they were still damp, or if you wanted to wait and do your ironing later, you had to let them dry completely, and then sprinkle them a half hour before ironing. You never sprinkled them unless you were sure you would be able to iron them, because damp things would sour if they sat too long. And when you took down the dry laundry, you worked from the outside lines in, folding as you went, dropping the items into the laundry basket. It was easiest to fold sheets while they were on the line, so that they didnt drag on the mossy bricks beneath the reel.
     I loved hanging out laundry. It was an outdoor operation, and I was an outdoor girl. 
     Sometimes my grandmothers offered conflicting advice about the things they taught me. One grandmother swore that any dish with cooked tomatoes in it needed a pinch of sugar to sweeten the acid. The other one thought that was rubbish. One grandmother loved to repeat her mothers rule for cleaning jewelry: oil your opals and boil your diamonds. The other quietly suggested cold water and ammonia for the diamonds, and a soft cloth to polish the opals, if indeed one were fortunate enough to have any. One felt that buttered soda crackers served in a soup bowl of hot milk was the perfect meal for a sick child no matter what the ailment. The other was sure that milk would add to the congestion of a cold.
     Most of the time, however, my grandmothers agreed with each other. I doubt that there has ever been a pair of mothers-in-law who lived together in greater harmony. They left me with a store of knowledge, some practical:

  • Serve from the left, remove from the right.
  • For a cough, mix hot tea, honey & lemon juice (my mother would sneak in some bourbon).
  • When you sew a button onto heavy fabric like an overcoat, put a matchstick under the button before you sew, and pull it out afterward. That way the button will have some play so that it wont bind as it passes through the thick fabric of the buttonhole.
  • Witch Hazel patted on any kind of bump makes it feel better.
  • Prunes work.

and some just generally worth knowing:

  • Children love stories of the past, especially their familys past.
  • A hand laid gently on a shoulder can be like a benediction.
  • Little nonsense poems and songs delight, and they stick with you forever.
  • Grandparents are almost never too busy to read aloud to you.

     Of course my grandmothers werent the only ones with good advice. The other day, my friend Pam and I were discussing how best to get along with someone you dont really like, but must deal with from time to time.  As my grandmother always says, she told me, you can be nice and not get thick.



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