“Ironing Their Clothes” belongs to Homecoming, the first poetry collection published by Julia Alvarez, a collection of narrative poems that focus on domestic life, where the author uses family images to reconstruct her family’s past. This poem—a short story in prose—first appeared in an issue of the journal 13th Moon, devoted to American women’s writing.
The collection is narrated by an adult female voice trying to recompose scenes from her childhood and coming to terms with current events in her present life. Alvarez creates an alter ego to review her childhood, contemplating it from the distance that age provides. The first part of Homecoming, entitled “Housekeeping,” to which “Ironing Their Clothes” belongs, is composed of sketches. These sketches deal exactly with doing the family housework: she sweeps, dusts, makes the beds, does laundry, and, in this story, irons the laundry of her family both literally and symbolically. She presses the wrinkles of her parents’ clothing, trying to liberate them from their problems, pains, and conflicts while she maps her childhood in a household too busy for love.
The story does not talk directly about immigration but has a strong smell of exile, fear, and frustration, voiced mainly in the silence of the father and the bad temper of the mother, a woman forced to spend her life doing the housework with the sole help of her daughters, for she cannot afford to hire someone to take care of domestic tasks for her because of her social and economic position. The protagonist breathes all those feelings while growing up and translates them into words to make a portrait of her childhood home: a household full of worries. At the same time, she reveals, through the choice of words of her narrative voice, how, even in her adult life, she has proven unable to overcome most of these feelings of impotence and disappointment, which are expressed consciously and nostalgically in the lines of her narrative.
The feminine character of the narrative voice is heard clearly as she becomes an individual woman, in a process of acquiring an identity of her own, separated from her mother; the I speaks aloud, detached from her mother’s voice, yearning for a personal space inside the household and within the love of her family.
The domestic scene is transformed into a time of longing and reflection upon the history written on the family’s bodies. The clothes she irons still carry the imprint of overworked bodies, yelling for a long night’s rest and showing the history of a long life of effort and hard labor. The memory of this narrator, undoubtedly Alvarez’s alter ego, moves to the fore images of her father’s back “cramped and worried with work,” of “the collapsed arms” waiting to be hugged by his loved ones in the first stanza or part of the poem. The second stanza recalls memories of an always busy mother, doing strenuous domestic work that occupies a precious time her daughter claims as hers. Thus, the narrative voice does not complain about the absence of love in her family but their lack of time to express it, a working routine that makes her feel abandoned and alienated from the other members of the family. The narrator highlights the importance of her task, her responsibility to her family, who are expecting her contribution to the domestic tasks, so that they can wear freshly ironed clothes every morning. Paradoxically, her care and diligence seem to be unnoticed; her housework is constantly taken for granted by her family, who apparently only establish communication with the narrator to scold and warn her of the possible consequences of getting distracted from her daily routine.
The feeling of alienation overcomes the protagonist of the poem; she feels detached from reality and clings to her family clothing and familiar scenes of her past in an attempt to come to terms with her present life, a reflection for the most part of her lonely childhood. Because of this detachment and feeling of displacement, she gives higher value to domestic scenes and sees ironing as a refuge, as a way to express the emotions and feelings restrained by the circumstances of her family. The narrator has no contact with the outside world; she does not question her parents’ decisions and submissively accepts her role in the house, a secondary position that distances her from true human contact except with their clothing.
Coming to terms with her solitude, the girl caresses the clothes she irons, compares their wrinkles with her mother’s ageing fast; her love is like the soft and warm touch of the iron that kisses the lines of time, tiredness, and concern. The clothes she irons receive the most precious expressions of love, those she hopes her family will eventually receive when they wear those fabric pieces on their skin. Finally, in the last stanza, she finds comfort and a certain sense of fulfilment, dreaming of her power to heal the pains of her relatives, transmitting it through the pieces of clothing, “all needing a touch of my iron,” in order to remove any trouble that could possibly become attached to them while being worn.
Alvarez, Julia. Homecoming: New and Collected Poems. New York: Plume, 1996.
Johnson, Kelli Lyon. Julia Alvarez: Writing a New Place on the Map. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.