John Fountain: Lessons never far from my heart

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John Fountain’s grandmother Florence G. Hagler

I stand with a hot iron, pressing the wrinkles of my white cotton shirt. The scent of starch mixed with a hint of bleach and fabric softener fills my nostrils.

I breathe it in, relish the process of straightening with heat and precision. There is something about wearing a shirt cleaned and pressed by my own hands, even if this is a relic from the past.

A clean white towel lies atop the ironing board, mostly to avoid collecting any spots that may lie undetectable to the naked eye. Moments earlier, I retrieved the shirt from a chilly plastic bag I had refrigerated. This was Grandmother’s way.


Follow @csteditorialsI press a button and steam hisses in this meticulous ritual I learned many years ago under the tutelage of my dearly departed grandmother Florence Hagler. I can still see her. Hear her.

Remember the clunky white washing machine with the wooden roller wringer that if you weren’t careful could consume your fingers. The wooden and hard plastic washboard that stood in Grandmother’s metal basement sink that she used to rub out stains with determination and knuckles.

“Place a little detergent on your collar and cuffs before washing your shirt,” Grandmother said, her words rinsed in wisdom, craft and love. “And make sure you scrub your neck and wrists before you put your shirt on, JohnWesley,” she’d say, fusing my first and middle names.

“OK, Grandmother.”

I hated when she called me JohnWesley — around my friends. But I loved it otherwise. It made me feel special. Grandmother was the only one who called me that. Our bond.

Grandmother’s way of transforming soiled white shirts — once they had been thoroughly cleaned — into crisp bright swans was to starch them.

“Only starch the collar and cuffs, John Wesley,” my grandmother instructed.

Boxed starch. Not that spray stuff.

Then sprinkle the shirt with a little water, place it in any clean plastic bag. Throw it in the refrigerator for a few minutes. The result was a chilled shirt whose wrinkles were more submissive under the glide of a steamy hot iron.

As a boy, I watched Grandmother perform this ritual many times on Grandpa’s shirts.

And I watched her quilting blankets in the early morning before the sun arose, the rumble of the sewing machine awakening me like a cock’s crow.

Thimbles, needles and thread were among her tools. An upstairs bedroom at my grandparent’s house was the makeshift tailor shop where she and I had endless conversations about life, in between recitations of Bible verses and her sudden innate utterances of praise.

“Jeeeesus, you been mighty good!” she’d shout in an instant. “Won-der-ful sav-ior … My, my my … ”

Praise to God was never far from Grandmother’s lips. A labor of love never far from her strong but gentle hands. And the lessons she taught me, even after all these years, never far from my heart.

I am reminded that once upon a time, I had only one white shirt. Cleaning and starching it, sometimes nightly for church, was a matter of necessity. Back then I had more time than money. Then one day I had less time. So I started taking take my shirts to commercial cleaners.

They break my buttons. Alter the fabric of my shirt by starching the whole body. Rip it.

Sometimes they can’t get it quite right, even when they do.

Sometimes I need to clean my own shirts, with my own hands.

As I iron, the wrinkles melt. The scent fills my nostrils. And memories of another life and time flood my soul and mind.


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