Antique linens and the smell of steam

With Leah and Dad here the other night we made dinner, and I set the table and pulled out the beautiful antique handmade linen that I inherited from Mum when she died. I use it only rarely, and every time I spread it over the table I see the careful embroidery unraveling, or watch as the act of eating a meal causes small stains that will take bleach for removal, and I know its time is limited. But I use it anyway. It reminds me of Sunday dinners in Ireland, of Easter and Christmas, of the formality and complexity of my past.

Today I ironed the tablecloth and matching napkins. I don’t usually iron, but these, pure cotton, needed it. The heat, the steam, and the smell of the two combined evoked the hours I spent ironing my grandfather’s cotton handkerchiefs as a child. I actually enjoyed the handkerchiefs, the way the spray of water darkened the white cloth, and the way the iron lifted the dark water, and smoothed all the creases till the square of thin monogrammed cotton was as smooth as cream. I hated shirts, still do, but the linens, those were easy, and satisfying, and calming. And today, ironing those 70-year-old linens, I felt calm.

5 responses to “Antique linens and the smell of steam

  1. :-> I can see it, and smell it.

  2. Oh, how evocative this memory is.

    It reminds me of my mother teaching me to iron using my father’s handkerchiefs. The smell of the hot iron, and the steam, and the occasional spritz of spray starch. I miss those moments with her.

    Thanks for the wonderful memories.

  3. I can smell it too …. and the hiss of the steam.

  4. Elsie and Dale and mm,
    It’s amazing how smell evokes the past, isn’t it? I always wonder if I’ll ever smell the smell of my grandparents’ house again: porridge and pipe tobacco and old fabric and ivy.

  5. Memories of ironing the linen table napkins! Thank you!

    Many years ago, my mother gave me my Irish grandmother’s linen table napkins, saying, “I want you to use these. Don’t just put them in a box and forget about them.” I don’t use them often, but I keep them in a kitchen drawer where they are easy to find. A good connection to a grandmother who died long before I was born.

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