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.