Life

Nuala McCann: 70s music reminded me that in our house I was the Ironing Queen

On my fancy app, I can find music to go with my morning coffee and hits to pep up my daily run. But no-one has produced an album of hits for a hot steam iron

Dancing to Abba with the iron in my hand and going maudlin over Ring! Ring! Why don’t you give me a call!

I’M LYING in bed on a Saturday morning, spring sunlight steaming through the windows, listening to Songbird by Fleetwood on the iPad. And more than 40 years slip away in a whisper.

Picture my best friend and I in the days of gipsy skirts, hot pants, urchin haircuts – sitting cross-legged by the record player in her front room.

She’s carefully easing the new LP out of the cover – no finger marks on that vinyl please – and the turntable is set to 33 rpm.

And the voice soars and dives like a bird… like we do… dreaming of our futures, what will university be like? What shall we wear to the school social? Those were the days when powder-blue eye shadow was a thing and dancing around your handbags was another.

And 40 years later, I text her a “Do you remember?” text. She texts back that what she remembers is our front room and our old wooden radiogram where she first heard Don McLean and the Eagles.

The joy of two big brothers and a big sister was that they passed down their musical tastes with their coats. So that while my eldest brother had the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album – an artwork in its own right – my middle brother liked a bit of Blondie and Cheap Trick and my sister gifted me Leonard Cohen… much better than an anorak.

Big families can be big work – we all had our jobs. Mine was the family ironing. The board was put up in the front room, the washing off the line was piled high on the sofa and I’d huff like the girl in the Rumpelstiltskin story who got locked into a room stuffed with hay and told to spin it into gold.

Eight people’s clothes are a right mountain but the old record player was my Rumpelstiltskin. It made gold of the ironing.

Dancing to Abba with the iron in my hand and going maudlin over Ring! Ring! Why don’t you give me a call! – because in those days, you waited for the fella to call… honestly!

Lying in bed last Saturday listening to Songbird brought all that back. A small green shoot of hope unfurled in my heart. It brought back the joy and the heartbreak of being 17.

Back then, I bought music that spoke to my soul. In Germany on summers spent in the pickling factory, we’d flick through box upon box of albums at street markets and return with The Kinks and Cat Stevens. I left them behind some years down the line.

Now, on my fancy app, I can find music to go with my morning coffee and hits to pep up my daily run. But no-one has produced an album of hits for a hot steam iron.

The ironing days when I set up the board and got down on my knees at our old radiogram are long gone. No more flicking through my father’s old Count John McCormack favourites, singing Whiskey on a Sunday and wondering who in God’s name truly loved Gilbert and Sullivan.

It’s not that I was ever good at ironing. The madame for whom I au paired in France tried to teach me how to iron her husband’s shirts – he was a captain in the French Navy – ooh la la. She gave up.

And nobody has time for all that ironing any more. My sister loves 100 per cent cotton sheets but she whips them off the line and puts them fresh, crisp and crumpled on the beds. She has no time for that ironing malarkey.

And now that my mother is gone, what I remember are the more recent days that I spent with her at home when we did nothing special.

The radiogram has long disappeared but a lot else remained the same. Ma would sit with a cup of tea and I’d set up the old board and iron away at the bedclothes and fresh blouses.

Magic drifted into the everyday. We had come full circle, she and I. In long ago days, I’d come home from school bursting with news and she’d be standing with the iron. Fifty years later, the roles were reversed. She’d watch me run the iron over the crisp cotton sheets and smile.

“I love this,” she’d say. There was a peace about it. Just something soothing about two women chatting as they go about old familiar household chores. Ironing brought us close.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Life