The zen of laundry


Henri Tolouse-Lautrec, The Laundry Worker

By Vicki Boykis

When I think about what it means to be a Russian woman, I think about clean, folded clothes.

Every Russian woman I know is better at ironing than me.  Every week for the eighteen years I lived at home, I’d watched my mother haul the laundry basket from the dryer, thunk it down in front of the ironing board, turn on the TV, and let the iron heat up and hiss while quietly folding clothes into piles.

First, the sheets are ironed with long, broad strokes, forming the base layer. The rest of the clothes are ironed on the sheets — the shirts, pants, skirts, all of the items that households run on.

I only really started to appreciate how well Russian women iron when I had a baby and drowned under mountains of sweatpants, t-shirts, tiny little hats and socks, and all the other detritus that having a newborn brings, day in and day out, without end.   When our much-loved Russian nanny still worked for us, I would come home to smoothly ironed baby onesies, baby socks folded neatly and precisely in half. Our nanny would be sitting on the couch, looking effortless,  like she hadn’t lifted a finger, let alone done the grueling  work of raising my child all day. 

When my husband and I lived with my mother-in-law for a brief time, I would come home, embarrassed, to find all of my work clothes stacked neatly, and my mother-in-law already moving through other rooms doing other tasks, like a ghost who had never been.

Where do they find the energy to iron, these strong, strong women in my life? These women who have held down jobs when their husbands didn’t work, whose parents had cancer, who have divorced husbands, buried children? These women who have come home from work, arms aching with grocery bags and unfinished tasks, and still had time to make my clothes smell clean, and like home?  

I am terrible at ironing. My technique  is not methodical or zen, but frenzied, exhausted, and angry. I iron in a worried, hurried way, in the ten minutes that the toddler is interested in playing near my bed, in the twenty minutes before I have to work, in the fifteen minutes while she’s going down for her nap. My ironed clothes are folded haphazardly, sometimes barely even touched by the iron at all. I iron in rage and exhaustion, wondering why I need to go over and over the same shirt, week in and week out, again and again, if we have feminism now.

Ironing in America is seen as embarrassing, something we threw out with the first and second waves of feminism. Ironing for me is a defeat, an admission that, even though I supposedly “have it all,” I am still not above folding socks and onesies and dress shirts. I am still not above the domesticity I have fought so hard to leave behind.

But the ironing the Russian women in my life do is quiet, graceful, a sign of strength and resistance against a world that is messy and cruel. And sometimes, as I iron, like an American,  I wonder if I can ever be one of them.

One comment

  1. hi–love this post! (i read after a different Post here on Chernobyl bwas just posted on Hacker News). A brief story closely related to your Post: My wife is Russian (i am not). Within a week or two after we were married and my wife had come to my flat to be with me, i went to my closet to get my clothes for the day and became very confused. It looked as if my wife had thrown out all of my clothes and purchased identical copies from the shop. That was the only explanation i could think of for why all of my t-shirts were ironed and folded so precisely and beautifully, i was very careful to just take one and not to disturb the rest of the neat stack. dress shirts were all on hangers, again ironed so perfectly i thought i might not be able to bend my arms once i put the shirt on. The entire time i was getting dressed, i was very disoriented–wondering “am in supposed to pay her for these new clothes; perhaps not, there are no price tags on them?” and “if they are in fact my original cloths, how did she get this this way?” and “what is that strange ‘hissing’ sound coming from our living room?”


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