*I’m not much of a handy man. If it can’t be remedied with the jiggle of a handle, it’s just plain out of luck. When I’m asked if I cook, I deflect by saying how crazy, as in wonderful, it is that breakfast tastes great any time of day. It is not in cliched jest that I quip, “You do the math”; I really mean it. I’m lousy with numbers.
But I can iron my ass off.
Armed with a hot iron, I am a bad man. Present me an item to be rid of lines and rumples, and you can expect great results. Rather than encounter my wrath, cloth wrinkles have been known to mystically straighten out on their own.
You’ve got your steam, your fancy temperature settings for fabrics that sound like the names of B-movie sci-fi villains (“The Recurring Revenge of Rayon”)—to hell with all that. In my world, an iron has but two temperatures: Hot and Really Hot. Unless a fabric’s tag or good common sense calls for otherwise, I dampen the garment with a few sprinkles of water, crank up the heat, and go to work.
For this formidable domestic skill, I owe a debt of gratitude to Miss Ethel Davis.
A big, warm, dignified woman without children who didn’t suffer mess from anyone, Miss Davis was more than the neighbor on the other side of our Eastside Oklahoma City duplex wall. She’d known my parents and my four siblings for enough years that she was trusted family.
This time-honored station in our lives gave Miss Davis certified authority, one Saturday morning in the front yard of our place, to take one look at my lemon short-sleeve button down shirt and inform me, in no uncertain terms, that Perma-Press, the space-age invention manufactured into clothes in the ‘60s to render them “wash and wear,” had failed me.
She said I had no business–none–wearing my criminally wrinkled shirt anywhere, even if it was “just” to meet friends at Washington Park, three blocks away. The shirt required ironing. If I didn’t know how to iron—and, at age ten, I did not—Miss Davis would teach me.
I didn’t know she meant right that minute. In her tight, cozy kitchen, Miss Davis dutifully set up her ironing board. On it, she placed an iron that seemed to weigh as much as an anvil, and plugged the weapon into the wall socket. After serving me orange juice in a small glass with yellow flowers on it, she told me to take off my shirt.
An hour later, I’d learned the rudiments of ironing clothes. Over the years, the more I ironed, the better I became at it. But Miss Davis laid the foundation, bless her soul.
I tell this story, because lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about “legacy.” People are wondering, after they are gone, how they’ll be remembered. You can see how I remember Miss Davis.
The legacy conversation isn’t happening only among those of a certain age. Pandemic-related illnesses, assorted health issues, crime, natural disasters and freakish, tragic life events have us all considering our mortality and pondering: When we go, what of ourselves will we leave behind?
For humans who procreate, the immediate answer is obvious. Parents own the precious legacy of a bloodline—kids, grandkids, great-grand kids and beyond.
People leave their mark in other ways. We create businesses whose logos outlive us. We make music the whole world sings. As politicians, we pass legislature to make life easier for the masses. We paint, write, sculpt. We create television and film works. The legacies of actors are re-run for generations to come.
However, shaping the Final Resume—isn’t that what a legacy is?—doesn’t require trumpets or a drum roll. Legacies are built on subtle, seemingly modest acts, kept alive by the grateful recipients of those acts.
Take school teachers, for example. Born mere mortals, upon becoming teachers, these people are then granted eternal life. Don’t believe me? Query a friend, family or stranger about their childhood teachers. Watch their faces go soft as they wistfully recant moments with instructors who changed their lives. Moments that happened a zillion years ago, kept alive by loving remembrance.
A serial killer will get all sentimental, recalling that the only ones who truly cared about him were his teachers—teachers, no doubt, inspired to be teachers by the legacies of other teachers.
Legacy-building doesn’t wait to kick in at a certain era in one’s life. Our personal legacies are being created and fermented every day. If you live the life of an asshole, that’s what your legacy will be. By the way, legacy’s got a memory like an elephant.
Kindness, thankfully, is contagious. It doesn’t stop with those on the receiving end; kindness inspires kindness in others. The compassion you extend becomes your legacy. What kooky, sweet irony: Legacy, always viewed in future time, is actually formed by living your best life, in the moment. Right here, right now.
When I think of legacy in its traditional light, the courageous selflessness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.comes to mind. And who can escape the unyielding vision of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs? Or the impassioned, influential genius of Aretha Franklin.
For me, right alongside them, stands Miss Davis. Yeah, I know. But ever since she taught me to iron, never once have I erected an ironing board without thinking of her. Long gone, my loving neighbor on Sixth and High streets, lives. In my heart, in this story. That’s legacy.
Decades later, I’d realize the brief ironing tutorial that Miss Davis gave me held an even larger lesson, on a subject Dr. King spoke of plenty, and the Queen of Soul often sang about: Self-respect. I can just hear Miss Davis now: Young man, I don’t care where you’re headed today, put some pride in your personal appearance.
Steven Ivory, journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org