Ekphrasis #1: Chained Housewife, or Just Trying to Relax?


a black and white photo of a tired woman ironing shirts in the 1940s or 1950s
Tired Woman Ironing, C.1930s by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

"Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding."

Diane Arbus


An image I often evoke when describing my childhood is one of my mother ironing my dad’s work shirts in the living room. The image, and the tone I use when talking about this image, is meant to convey my salty attitude about a facet of the type of household I grew up in, one in which my dad earned the money and relaxed with the newspaper, and my mom cooked, cleaned, and took care of the kids. Mostly I’ve interpreted this image, verbally and in my mind, as evidence of my mother’s oppression.


As I grew older, more cynical, educated, and bratty, nearly everything my mother did was evidence of her oppression


and the oppression of all women everywhere.


An image linked to this intangible mental picture of my ironing mother, is a black and white photograph I once saw of a fabulous woman


vacuuming a gaudy living room (far from the one pictured above). The woman’s hair is bouffanted, face fully made. Capri pants hug her slim hips, and she might be smoking. Very mid-century, very Peggy Bundy. I thought the photographer was Diane Arbus, but I must be wrong. Now, I can’t


find that photo anywhere. I saw it when I was in my 20s and I thought that lady ruled. Look at that housewife, making it look sexy. I didn’t think about the photographer dressing her, posing her, conceptualizing, placing her subject in a glamorous context, changing the meaning of "Woman Vacuuming", and


recently, my mom shared something about how she used to feel while ironing, back in the day. She says she found it relaxing, maybe the same feeling my dad got from the newspaper. She would watch TV while she did it, the Phantom of the Opera mini-series recorded off of NBC onto a VHS cassette, and she would enjoy the hot press of iron on fabric, the humid swoosh swoosh, not caring if they were my dad’s work shirts, or her own--


--and I recall that I, then a 12-year-old wearing holey socks and an expired school uniform, and with nothing else to do, would enjoy her being there in the living room, ironing my dad’s work shirts like she always did, with the TV on as it always was, and nothing in that moment, the moment of me living it, was ever wrong. In fact, despite feeling bored at home, things felt unquestionably right.


And so I’ve truthened the image in my mind, now


in my mind I’ve photographed my mom ironing, her figure and her ironing board floating on a puffy pink cloud

with a half-masked man and a rose, on a 1950s TV in the background


the tattered socks of a pre-teen float somewhere in the middle ground, detached, a surrealist image, photo montage


could be about the things that bring us peace, the things that let us live detached from


the retrospective gaze of judgemental daughters, or of anyone else


for that matter.