by Dorothy K. Kohrherr
My mother ironed her way through six games of the 1953 World Series. Mel Allen was ever present in our living room, although he never sat on the couch, had a beer with my Dad, or stayed for dinner. Billy Martin’s three run triple in the first game match up between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers was not met with wild cheering, but the quiet rhythm of my mother extending her arms to lift and pull the linen tablecloth up and over the wooden ironing board. Yogi Berra’s home run on the Philco’s 20-inch screen, reflected an image of my mother running the iron back and forth across my father’s crisply starched shirt, creating order out of the chaos of wrinkled cotton. She expertly turned the shirt almost inside out to iron under the collar and yoke, moved onto the cuffs and sleeves, and finished with the back of the shirt and then the fronts. Her domain was not Yankee stadium or Ebbets Field, but 19 Jefferson Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. The house, strong and sturdy, rested on a 50’ x 100’ plot of land in the sixth ward, the Irish section of town. The three bedroom, one bath up, with a living room, dining room, kitchen down, was built in 1940, and purchased by Robert (Bob) and Madeline Kane in January 1942 for $7200.
Jefferson Avenue was my neighborhood growing up. A small town within a city. People knew who you were. You knew who you were. I was Bob and Madeline’s daughter. The second child sandwiched between two brothers. A sister came later. I could walk the neighborhood to visit cousins and if out of line sent home. The streetlights set boundaries in time and place.
I was seven years old in 1954. My brother, Bob was eleven, a worldly eleven. He and his friends built clubhouses in the woods and told me stories of the fox that roamed there ready to attack if I dared ventured into his “territory.” One afternoon, Bob and his friends teased me, “Nah nah nah nah yesterday we saw the fox run through the woods and he was looking for little girls.”
One of our neighbors had polio. Every Halloween dressed as ghosts and goblins kids would be ushered into her bedroom. Her head stuck out of the iron lung. Her “costume” a giant tin can that helped her breathe. We stood still as statues on the floor’s white line so she could see us reflected in the mirror over her head.
At school we practiced “Duck and Cover,” air raid drills. We were taught to crouch, shield our eyes, and scrunch into the tightest balls possible in order to protect ourselves in the event that the Soviet Union dropped an atomic bomb.
Some nights I would lay awake, hiccuping tears and watching the shadows move across the ceiling. The shapes changed from a fox stalking me, teeth bared ready to pounce, to the polio virus that could “freeze” my muscles and then the virus morphed into a giant Soviet mushroom cloud that would kill us all. When I couldn’t sleep, I would ask my Dad for a story. He told me that scary things happen, but he had been in the war to make the world safe. He would give me a hug and sometimes ask me to read him a story. I had mastered the art of changing lines and shapes into words and he wanted to know what I could do; just like when he taught me how to ride a two-wheeler. I read from the Poky Little Puppy, “Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world….”
From April to June that year, the Army-McCarthy hearings were taking place in our living room. The living room where we lived our lives: a fire on chilly autumn evenings, Madeline playing canasta with her card club, the kids’ table at Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree in the corner, a bookcase filled with poetry, great quotations, and the latest novels, and the chairs where Bob and Madeline read the paper, had a drink before dinner and shared the details of the day. There were the stairs my father climbed each morning with a thermos of coffee. He left it on my mother’s nightstand before he left for work. A kiss while he was on the road.
In June 1954 my mother’s ironing board was set up in front of the television. Senator Joe McCarthy was sparring with U.S. Army special counsel Joseph Welch. Amidst the hearing’s discord, my mother smoothed pillowcases. The easy rhythm of the iron’s back and forth motion pressed school clothes and Sunday dresses. McCarthy’s accusations were accompanied by smirks, tight thin-lipped looks of disgust, and at times he waved his glasses to deflect Welch’s comments as one would swat at an annoying mosquito. Even then I knew that my mother would not entertain the thought of inviting McCarthy to a neighborhood cocktail party or Fourth of July picnic. I saw a smile spread across her face as Mr. Welch responded to Senator McCarthy’s attacks on Fred Fisher, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
My father’s shirts were hung neatly over the arm of the floor lamp. The laundry basket was filled with freshly ironed sheets and pillowcases. My mother turned off the television, folded the ironing board and began to prepare dinner before my father came home. After dinner, it was the Howdy Doody show, a story and then bedtime.
In 2011 world events are much like those of 1954: the U.S. is sending aid to Japan, China’s economy is growing, and the President of Egypt was forced to resign. I like to iron. The steam warms the spring day as I turn the antique towel face down shaping the monogram; my mind wanders as I move my arm back and forth creating the rhythm of comfort and accomplishment. In many ways, I’m unlike my mother and father. I’ve lived in small apartments, in the middle of a potato field, and on a 125-acre farm raising Christmas trees and ostriches. One year I spent 200 days at Memorial Sloan Kettering when my infant daughter was diagnosed with stage III cancer. Today, I live I the “beehive,” a condo community for “active seniors.” But when anyone asks, “Where are you from?” I always answer, “19 Jefferson Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey.” It is the DNA of my soul, just as much as my mother’s hazel eyes and my father’s straight nose.
As I smooth the towel, I glance at an old black and white photograph. I’m standing tall on the front steps of number 19. It is my fifth birthday. I’m dressed in my new cowgirl outfit, a gift from my mother and father: boots, short skirt trimmed with fringe, a vest, neck scarf and a hat that would make Dale Evans turn green with envy. Slung around my waist was my “gun belt” with silver “six shooter.” I was ready to take on the world.
The phone rings, my daughter Corinne, asks, “Mom, are you concerned about my political angst over the death of Bin Laden?”
“The truth,” I replied, “I’m ironing.”
Dorothy K. Kohrherr retired from a 35–year teaching career and presently serves as an educational consultant. Her essays have been published in Visible Ink (Memorial Sloan Kettering’s writing magazine), the NJEA Review, and the Kelsey Review. She lives in Lawrenceville, NJ after many years raising ostriches on a small farm outside of Lambertville, NJ.