Sophfronia Scott has written a gorgeous yet uncategorizable memoir that is in part a tale of her brush with the celebrity Lena Horne. But that is only the instigation; their conversation lead both Horne and Scott to tears, to memories, to fathers and to white shirts and ironing boards. In capturing her memories of learning to iron and her father’s white shirts, Scott captures a moment in African-American cultural history that is poignant and complex as hell. Father-love, oppression, African-American male pride, daughter-love — all these and more.
Sophfronia Scott is a new friend, as it were, a second-semester student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, also a published novelist with, already, a long career as a freelance and woman-of-letters.
The two photos are of Scott’s father. One was taken in the 1940s, the other somewhere between 1988 and 1990. The author photo at the top is by Tain Gregory, Sophfronia’s son, age eight.
When my friend Jenny answered her cell phone that day she had said, “I’m walking with Jake and Ella and Grandma in Central Park. We’re only a few blocks away, come join us.” Jake was Jenny’s pre-school age son, Ella was her dog and Grandma? Well, Grandma was Lena Horne—singer, actress, icon. I said okay, hung up the phone and kept walking but I was pretty sure I’d left part of my brain back on the corner of East 68th and Fifth Avenue. At that point Jenny and I had been friends, dear friends, for close to two years but I’d never met the legendary Lena. Her public appearances, even at family functions, were few. Our mutual friends spoke of her with hushed awe, wondering if they would ever get the opportunity being presented to me then. They talked about the possibilities of being tongue-tied, not knowing what to say, of coming off as being less than fully charged in the mental department. As I walked toward the park I took on all their anxieties, just assuming they were my own. I felt like the suede jacket I broke out each fall suddenly looked shabby, and the scuff marks on my boots were rising up all white and too obvious.
I found them, stroller, dog, women, taking up most of a footpath near the East 70s. Jenny introduced me and when Lena said my name “Fronie-Fronie,” as I’m known in their family, the fear inside me melted. I recognized the lilt of her voice, but not from her recordings or her movies. She sounded like someone I loved. I heard the tones of my father’s sisters as I heard them in my childhood: slow and elegant and beautiful.
I don’t remember what she wore—unusual for me because at the time I was mad for fashion—but I remember the glow of her skin, the way her chin tilted up to examine my face. Maybe she marveled over my freckles or the reddish brown shade of my dreadlocks. From the intensity of her gaze, though, I gathered she seemed to be searching not for prettiness but for content. She wanted, I think, to see what was in my brown eyes. I remember bearing her weight as she took my arm and we walked while Jenny pushed Jake in the stroller and supervised the leashed but ever-roaming Ella.
I like to believe she spoke to me as she did then because she had soon realized I was not like her granddaughter’s other friends, urban and modern and lovely, but for her out of reach in terms of connections and references. Lena was born in 1917. My father, by then deceased, had come into the world in 1919 so I had grown up with her language, with her references. Talking to her was not that different from talking to my own father in our living room as he used to sit in his recliner. In fact Lena asked me about “my people” and I told her about my father coming from Mississippi and my mother’s family from Tennessee, and how they merged in Ohio but raised me and my siblings as though no one had ever left either of those southern spaces, right down to my father’s whippings and demeaning words that stung even more than the physical strikes. My sisters and I were taught to cook and clean and iron as if they were the only endeavors that could ensure our survival as women. By the time I was 18 and leaving for college I was so angry I vowed never to return. I didn’t tell Lena that part.
That’s how the ironing talk started. She seemed intrigued that I had learned so young and surprised that I still did it. My husband was, and is, terrible with an iron and it never occurred to me to send the shirts out to be laundered and pressed as every male in New York City, even those who couldn’t afford it, probably did. Lena, I learned, had married young, just 19, and to a man who, much like my father, insisted on his wife producing ironed shirts, fresh biscuits, and perfect needlework, but she had been taught none of it. It had been important to her to try, I could see that as a little frown creased Lena’s brow. Her own father had been absent most of her childhood and she seemed to have wanted the chance to show this kind of diligence for a man she loved. For a moment Lena released my arm and her pale hands, at waist level, swept through the air in front of her. “I used to weep over that man’s shirts,” she said. I nodded and we stood there together at an imaginary ironing board. The yellow leaves over our heads and under our feet provided the light for our work on that overcast day. “And they were all white shirts, right?” I asked. I remembered my father’s own white shirts as I heard Lena answer, “Yes.” We stood there, the shirt large and voluminous in Lena’s small hands, the white cotton hopelessly scorched.
Lena had squeezed my heart and I wanted to cry because I could feel how much she had loved her husband, how much she must have tried. I knew what it was to have such obvious proof of failure. I too had burned my father’s shirt (and coffee and biscuits and collard greens). But I had been able to make adjustments—so many adjustments—until I had eventually mastered most domestic tasks and could present my father with perfect shirts and perfect biscuits. It never occurred to me what it would have been like never to be able to do it, to never be able to show love in this way. Of course I wouldn’t have said that when I was ironing my father’s shirts. But I remembered the complete sense of pleasure and satisfaction when my father pulled on a shirt without making a critical remark. Maybe I even felt proud of the way he had looked. I wanted to tell Lena right then how to iron that shirt. Years later it still seemed to matter, and I felt Lena would have listened, that she still wanted to know like it was the answer to an essential, but long-elusive riddle.
To this day I have never read any proper instruction for how to iron a shirt. I suppose if I Googled “how to iron a shirt” I would find enough information, with video included, to bring me to the level of the ironing elite. But I feel what I learned from my mother’s hands is old magic—I don’t want to meddle with it.
I can tell you I start with the collar, unbuttoning it if it’s that kind, and laying it as flat as I can on the ironing board. I press it end to end. Ironing the small parts of a shirt is when you’re most likely to get burned. You have to hold the part close to the iron while you press and your fingers are simply in harm’s way. A burn rises quickly, a living red capsule on the surface of your skin. You think it will never heal because that’s how much it hurts when it happens. Ice is better than butter, I’ll tell you that now. Butter and burns is an old wives tale.
Working with steam is a blessing. I didn’t have a steam iron when I was a kid and my arms often ached with the effort of exerting the right pressure to smooth out the fabric. Ironing is so much faster now with steam. (When I got older my father bought us a Press-O-Matic, a smaller version of the huge rectangular ironing machines you see at the dry cleaners, but that’s another story and a different set of burns.) Next I pick up the shirt and lay it on one side of the front with the buttons face down and running horizontally in front of me. I iron that, then the sleeve on that same side. Sleeves are tricky because of their roundness. They don’t lie flat well so I will usually iron a sleeve and turn it over to find a funky crease I didn’t mean to create running like a new slash down the arm. Once I fix that I move to the other side and the other sleeve. Then I lay the back of the shirt out with the neck area fitted as much as possible over the narrow end of the ironing board. I press the back and all the little nooks of the back of the neck. I run the nose of the iron around inside the cuffs and then I’m done.
It takes a lot of love to iron a shirt you will never wear. When I see a man wearing a meticulous shirt I wonder who loves him, who has taken the trouble. Or did he have to send the shirt out because no one does?
Thinking about my father now I tend to focus more on the love and less on the anger. In many ways I have forgiven him. Such forgiveness is possible, I believe, not because he is long dead, but because of these unexpected moments of grace reaching across generations reminding me of this: the reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do. As I look back on that autumn afternoon and how Lena took my arm again as we continued our stroll through Central Park, I can see how in that moment I was in my 30s, Lena was in her 80s, but we were both girls ironing the shirts of the first men we ever cared for, and hoping they could feel our love pressed hard into every crease.
When Sophfronia Scott published her first novel, All I Need To Get By, with St. Martin’s Press in 2004, one prominent reviewer referred to her as potentially “one of the best writers of her generation.” Her work has appeared in Time, People, More, Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia is currently a masters candidate in fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “The Night Viera Kissed Her,” will be in the Fall 2012 issue of Sleetmagazine.com. She blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.
This essay is so beautiful, you can feel the complicated love vibrating in the words.
Thank you! Yes, very complicated, but love of any kind is worth fighting for so I’m willing to dive into it again and again.
So poignant. Lovely. Perhaps every woman of that generation has our own ironing memories. Thanks to Sophfronia for giving them such meaning.
Thank you Janet! People don’t talk about ironing much, do they? I’m so glad you enjoyed the essay.
As beautiful as the author! Well done.
Thank you Raychelle!
“The reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do.”
Words to ponder and fit into our own experience. Illuminating. Wonderful. Thanks!
Thank you. Yes, sometimes we focus too much on the hurt and not enough on the reason for it. Recently I told my 8-year-old son people fear love because they fear getting hurt. However if you do get hurt, the hurt eventually goes away. The love stays. So love as much as possible and don’t be afraid because the love is worth it. His response: “Okay Mama!” Why can’t we all be that accepting? 🙂
Hi Sophfronia! Great piece! Brings back memories of my own childhood. Glad to see your name in print again, too! 🙂
Thanks Tresa! Good to see your name again period! Hope you’re well.
I recall my Aunt Virginia showing me how to iron a shirt when she was doing them for her husband and family of 5 boys after a morning of working in the fields. Yours are exactly the same instructions I recall her demonstrating. Thanks for sharing this evocative memory.
Brilliant piece, Sophronia! You’ve taken me back to my childhood, ironing the handkerchiefs and pillowcases while I watched my mother and grandmother iron starched white shirts. Thank you, and congratulations!
Ah, yes, the handkerchiefs and the pillowcases! I loved ironing those–they were easy! Thanks for reading Cheryl!
Beautifully written and heartfelt! Oh what we learn from ironing…it transcends generations!
That was powerful! Fascinating that you shared these moments and memories with the legendary Lena Horne! I will not look at ironing the same way ever again.
Incredibly story, Sophronia. I can hear Lena’s (and your) distinctive voices. I felt like I was there. What I would have done to meet Ms. Horne in person!
This is precious, pulls you into the story, and encouraging to me as a young housewife finding I have grossly undercooked the potatoes in a casserole, and realizing just how quickly a cleaned bathroom collects new hair and dirt- I can get better! I must confess I never thought I would read anything so compelling about ironing, but then I have found myself to be wrong about an alarming number of things.
I certainly hope you don’t have cat’s paws on your collar. I always begin by ironing from that outside tip in toward the middle, then do the same on the other side. That way you don’t create a small crease in the collar corner. I had a sewing insructor who always insisted that good sewing was also good ironing. Do you have a pressing ham, Girl? 🙂 A good read that brought back happy feelings.
Okay, Breena, you got me with the cat’s paws and pressing ham references. Totally out of my league! What are those?
cat’s paws are those little wrinkly things you get from not pulling the material taut and then pressing – you’ve seen them. And a pressing ham is one of those things — shaped like a small ham and made so that a rounded section of fabric can be pressed flat and you can press a just sewn french seam flat before folding it over and finishing the sewing.
Gorgeous. Just gorgeous writing.
Thank you everyone for taking the time to read (and feel) this essay. I appreciate it! By the way, this essay has inspired my nephew Michael, a middle school principal in Ohio, to put on his white shirt (and suspenders!) today. We’ll post the photo here soon.
Photo credit for pic of me ironing: Tain Gregory, my 8-year-old son.
Captivating, poignant, classic. My mother was a stickler for wrinkle-free clothes down to the underwear! Thank you for the journey!
It’s beautiful!! Love it. The instructions on how you iron a shirt feel really resonant, and offer a great core structure to the piece. Well wrought.
LENA…my mind checked out with the mention of her and I remember seeing her in person once in L.A. (scarf, sunglasses, corner table) and there she presented the mystique and the aura. You presented her human and vulnerable. I cherish that view because it made me smile.
The words you gave your son about love, pain and fear all rang so true I stopped myself from calling my thirtysomething daughter, who is in a precious relationship. I wanted to repeat your words but that moment has passed. I’ll see what she takes from the story and comments.
It would take your poignant writing to make meaning from ironing. Thanks for introducing me to the magazine as well.
I do miss Lena and think of her often. Maybe that’s why this story was so close to the surface for me and waiting to be told. Looking forward to hearing what your daughter thinks as well.
I’m also glad you like the magazine. The editor has indeed opened a line of inquiry within me and I’ll certainly be exploring these issues of complicated love more in the future. Stay tuned!
I just read this essay & it brought back lots of memories of ironing my father & brothers’ shirts. Interestingly enough, I still iron my own shirts (like button-down oxfords in the fall & winter over jeans) – I guess in anticipation of a man on whom to show off my skills! Good Stuff!!!
What an incredibly beautiful story. It brought up a flood of emotions for me and so many memories of watching my mother iron my father’s shirts. And yes, they were white.
I’m so proud of my writing coach, Sophfronia Scott, and I bask in the glow of her brilliance.
And I’m happy that everyone else gets to experience her talent.
Sophronia, this is such a beautiful story, and touching on so many levels. I just want to savor your words. This brings back my own ironing memories. My grandmother, who would be 120 if she were still alive, taught me how to iron. I don’t remember what she had me iron, but I do remember burning my fingers. If I look hard enough, I can still see the tiny scars. She died when I was only 7, so I look back and admire her patience in teaching me. She was a wonderful lady!
Sophfronia, you are a force of creativity! I am in complete awe!
WONDERFUL piece, Sophfronia! Very proud…
The writing, the story, the feeling behind the ironing, the reminder to find the beauty in everyday tasks, the handed-down ironing instructions–I loved reading all of this, Sophfronia. Wonderful.
Thank you Cynthia! Your comments remind me of the Alice Walker short story Clint McCown had me read last semester: “Everyday Use.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it–all about beauty in the everyday.
Beautifully written essay (of course), Sophfronia. I love reading your work.
Sophronia, this is fantastic writing that really pulled me out of my reality. Lots of time travel with any dizziness eased by the soft hands of a strong narrator. Thanks for sharing another of your stories! Great picture, too.
Hi Pete, It’s interesting that you mention “time travel.” I was very careful with my time markers in this piece, having learned much from DG’s lecture from summer residency on handling time.
Such a beautiful piece! I remember as a kid, the times I saw your dad that he always seemed to be dressed to the nines as if he were headed to church. I now know why. Thanks for sharing such a story with the world!
You’re welcome Mike! And thank you for remembering my father.
Love this! So wonderfully written!! Would you believe “How to Iron a Shirt” is actually the first phrase I ever searched on the internet. I remember being so thrilled when I got detailed instructions. It was not something I ever learned to do and my husband needed some crisp shirts. 🙂
I find it interesting how so many people commenting here have experiences with ironing, but we don’t see commercials for irons or ironing products on TV. In fact the only time I see people ironing on TV it’s the designers on “Project Runway” getting their clothes ready for their models. Hmm…
Beautiful story Sophfronia! I was reminded of so many conversations I have had with my Grandmother. Thank you.
I, too. remember the big ironing machines. I got so good that, not only, did I iron all the sheets and table cloths in the family, I could do the blue jeans and some parts of the shirts. Thank you for taking me back 50 years to those other times and places.
You’re welcome Jeanne!
Of course . . . like a walk in the park. The unruffled pace, the agile choice of words. Very nice read. What I would have given to meet and interview Lena Horne. Thanks for trying. To the grave the stories go . . . We need to catch up.
Thanks John! I’m sure you must have had experiences like this in your interviews with famous sportscasters of the past.
I felt as if I was walking a few steps behind you,…. Just out of sight, but just close enough to hear your conversation. I could see the scenery and the shirts as if I was in the moment with you.
Thank you for this great comment, Rick. I believe a feeling of intimacy is important in this kind of writing and you’re helping me see I’m getting there.
Beautiful–you took me there to Central Park. Thank you for revealing such significance in what is often seen as domestic and mundane.
You’re welcome Gloria! I appreciate your taking the time to read the piece.
Let me say….just this past weekend I said to someone “I sometimes feel weird because I actually love to iron – the intimacy of it….” and here….your work appears. As always your words are like velvet…smooth, deep and passionate. There is such passion in everything you write that I am often left breathless and in awe. Congratulations on yet another beautiful work of art.
Thanks Lisa, and you hit upon the right word: passion. I’m just trying to follow the passion and ride it like I would ride a white water raft down a river.
I was drawn to your essay when I received your email and noticed it was written about you and Lena Horne. I always thought that my mother (who passed away in 2010) looked a lot like Lena. Although I didn’t relate to the ironing aspect of your story, I was touched by your description of Lena and how she touched your heart. When you wrote: “She sounded like someone I loved” and “Lena had squeezed my heart,” it made me think about my mother, someone I loved very deeply, someone who “squeezed” my heart with her love and kindness every day of her life. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story about a beautiful woman!!
You’re welcome Aimee! Thanks for the feedback. And yes, Lena was a beautiful woman. I miss her very much.
I love a good story. Especially when it’s true. A funny side note. My mom taught me to iron my bed sheets and blue jeans! I stopped freshman year in college because everyone was making fun of me, but still miss the feel of freshly ironed sheets.
And what about the crease in your blue jeans? Don’t you miss that too? 😉
Beautiful. I was instantly pulled in–such a moving piece. I sighed when I read that last line–it was so lovely–I didn’t want it to end.
Karen I think I’ll keep exploring work along these lines so hopefully there will be more and it won’t have to end. Thank you!
Absolutely beautiful.. I love how you captured the essence of Lena Horne (for those of us who never met her), as well as one of the very intricate and delicate steps in our journey to womanhood….
Thank you Rhoda! Much appreciated.
Great story my sister!! But I must say, I am so glad the iron has evolved today! Thanks for bringing up the childhood memories that I wanted to bury forever. LOL.Everytime my mother made me iron my fathers and my brothers shirts I would stand up for my rights by saying, “Why do I have to do it? Why can’t they do it? It’s their shirts! But as always, my mother gave me her famous line of, “Your not doing it for them, your doing it for me.” Ahhhh, the mental burns from the iron that leave lasting scars on our souls. Glad I didn’t burn my daughter with that one! I’m proud to say my son can iron his own shirts and he is damn good at it!!!!!
Oh, Leanne, I knew you’d have the “sisterhood” take on this! But just you wait: some day your son will be writing stories about ironing with you! 🙂
A reading at the Newtown Arts Festival
I am moved- the depth, the grace and the words overwhelmed me as Sophfronia read. The moment that Sophfronia tied ironing shirts to the relationship between a woman and the first male she loves, I knew then what my own writing was missing – passion. Sophfronia’s words brought me to a new level of reading, feeling and writing that I can only hope to emulate. She uses soft words that fill your soul and your mind with vivid images. Her characters are searching for something that they lack and there is learning and understanding – growth for her characters as well as the reader to be found throughout the piece.
I have learned from her writing style, choice of words but mostly from her classic and true statement about writing, which is, the key to writing “is in the details.” Sophfronia certainly includes the details. I am privileged to have both the honor to read her story and to learn from her.
J. E. Jackson
Jenn, I’m so honored you attended my reading and I’m appreciative of the wonderful words you’ve posted here. If I can pass the passion on to you then I will have succeeded as a writer and as a teacher. Thank you.
As usual your words are eloquent, poignant and raw in a really great way. Thanks so much for sharing so much of you. I think father-daughter dynamics impact us so much more than we’ll ever fully realize. ♥
You’re welcome Lisa! I know you haven’t had a chance to read much of my creative writing so I’m really glad you took the time to visit Numero Cinq. Thank you–I appreciate it. Keep in touch.
Sophronia, this is a beautiful essay. Your analogy of love through an ironed shirt is universal. I come from the outback of Australia and my mother learned the same way you did. How fortunate you were to meet the great Lena Horne.
Very well written….definitely brought back memories. I also remember during my younger days ironing towels for the elderly on our street. As a child, I recall thinking it made no sense whatsoever. I did not understand why a bath towel needed ironing. The delight on their faces, as they molded the children of the community, the act of responsibility, usefulness, and kindness was priceless. Today, I think what we learned back then contribute a great deal to our prospective on life and constant pursuit of denying failure as we keep pushing forward. Great Job! Thanks for sharing!
We iron shirts with the same rhythm and cadence, Sophronia. As you say, old magic that stands alone. My mother taught me to sew in the same way. Perhaps this is where we also learned all those adjustments that women of our generation still linger over and learn from.
All that said, brilliant work that reminds me of my father (born in 1920 and passed on as well), his love of story and that he passed that on to me.
We iron shirts the same way, Sophronia. This, like learning to sew, is old magic between generations. The adjustments we make is a different form of magic I am still learning to understand, as are so many women in our generation born of parents in the one your father and mine share.
All that said, brilliant essay that resonates deeply with me. Ironing his onw white shirts seems to be one of the only ways a friend of mine can visibly love himself. Lots to consider here. Thanks agin. P.S. Wonderful pictures of you and your dad. I have a similar one of my dad from a few years later.
Sorry about that – I thought the first one didn’t publish.
A beautiful essay, told with honesty and frankness. Thank you, Sophfronia. I’m also pleased so many before me have appreciated the piece, apologies for being late to the party.
Well done! I never mastered the art of ironing, but my mother took great pride in her crisp cotton blouses. She is now in her eighties and in ill health, so she has retired her beloved iron and has finally embraced permanent press. But thank you for sharing your lovely essay and stirring memories of Mama when she was young, vibrant, and always well-pressed.
I’m way behind the 8-ball in reading this, but I just wanted to tell you how great I think the piece is, Sophfronia. I love the way you use a serendipitous encounter to bring us into an intensely personal and engaging meditation. And I say as a guy about whom my best friend always says, “His middle name should be Wrinkles.”
Hey “Wrinkles” John, Darrelyn, Patrick, and Cory, I just wanted to thank you all for reading “White Shirts.” It’s been crazy lately with the weather, power outages and a packet deadline so it was nice to check in here and see new and wonderful comments! I am grateful, absolutely grateful.
So, so beautiful — touches me deeply. Thank you.
Hey Sophfronia. Guess its better late then never! I just read this essay, it’s a wonderful work. A glimpse inside. Thank you for sharing, made me think of my mom and how she must have felt about her father and big brother.