Dave Gibbons was my mother’s friend. Never her boyfriend. Just a good friend. Dave had three boys, all about the same age as us kids. One of Dave’s boy had a glass eye. We kids found that facinating and kinda creepy at the same time. I think he lost his real eye by running with a stick or somebody, maybe a brother, shoved a stick in his eye. Something along that line.
It wasn’t like the kid went around talking about how it was he lost his eye. I do recall him showing us the glass eye in its case. When he didn’t wear the eye, he wore an eye patch. I swear to the barefooted Obama that I am not making this up. The kid had a glass eye.
Dave did his best with the boys, but those boys were like monkeys at play. Always poking, prodding, hitting, shoving, running, swinging, perpetual motion. An afternoon with the Gibbons brothers could be dizzying.
I don’t know whatever happened to Dave’s wife. She took off is all I ever heard. She took off and left him with those three boys. He had his mama to help but other than that, Dave was on his own.
I always liked Dave. He was short, blond-hair with reddish tint, freckled and tanned, and the prettiest eyes. And Dave was just a very kind man.
He gave me my first paying job.
He’d pay me a quarter for every shirt or pair of slacks I ironed. Dave taught me how to use spray starch, how to get the iron to steam and how to put a fine crease in a pair of slacks. He’d bring the clothes over on the weekend and I had to have them ready to go out by Monday.
It was never that many items. I think Dave was doing it just to help me out, make me feel special. Teach me a thing or two. Maybe he really needed somebody to do his ironing.
I haven’t thought about Dave and that ironing for years now. I mostly remember Dave as the person who was with Mama the first time I ever said a cuss word in front of her.
She and Dave had gone fishing or something for the afternoon and when they took off I was in the kitchen making a cake. This was in our trailer on the corner lot before Frankie got us kicked out of that park. I was probably 12 or 13. After I made the cake Frankie and his friends came in and devoured the entire cake. When Dave and Mama got back to the house, I was standing over the ironing board, ironing Dave’s slacks.
“I thought you made a cake,” Mama said.
“Where is it?”
“Those damn boys ate it,” I replied. Then realizing what I’d done, I immediately tried to take my words back, apologizing to Mama. I was mortified that I had cussed in front of my mother and Dave. Dave, of course, thought it was hilarious and was doubled-over in laughter. He knew I was in big trouble with Mama. I think he was somewhat delighted because compared to his 3 boys, Mama’s 3 kids looked pretty tame. I think Dave liked seeing one of Shelby’s kids get into a tad bit of trouble.
Mama, however, was not laughing.
The last time I saw Dave Gibbons was back in 1996. The twins had a bad flu but I’d made plans to spend the afternoon with Dave. So we went anyway. The girls slept in his back room while Dave and I visited, along with my aunt Mary Sue. When we went to leave, I think it was Konnie, or one of the girls, went to shut the door on the van and Dave put his arm it in at the same time. The door caught the fleshy part of his arm and it tore the skin. It was painful and horrible. Dave was generous as ever about it. Still laughing at me after all those years.
Tonight, as I stood over the ironing board in another kitchen, pressing a yellow shirt, I thought of Dave and the lessons he taught me and the generous spirit he always displayed. I wondered who would have taught me how to crease a sleeve had it not been for Dave. If not for Dave how would I know how much spray starch to use? Or how to add just a bit of pressure to the handle of the iron?
I did not know all those years ago how important the lessons in ironing would be one day.
People don’t do enough ironing any more. Like everything else, it’s become the thing we used to do, like front-porch sitting and telling stories and reading. We’re just too busy. Ironing is considered a chore to loathe.
But I’ve always liked ironing. I like the rhythm of it. Ironing is not something you can do in a hurry. You have to slow down, take your time, pay attention, be careful, work the wrinkles out, and put the stiffiness in where needed.
That’s the same way we ought to approach life, I think. We need to slow down, take our time, pay attention, be careful, work the wrinkles out and always have a bit of starch on hand for the times you need it.
I thought of that today as I stood over that ironing board, pressing the last shirt Gordon will ever wear. Charlie or Red or somebody had given it to me on one of my trips to DC this year. They’d given it to me along with his National Park Volunteer badge.
Gordon never had the chance to wear that shirt in any official capacity. He’d loved it chiefly because it was proof that he was one of them. One of the gang of Wall Uncles. The men who have spent the bulk of their lives serving their country in one fashion or another. First as soldiers and then as guides at the Wall where their buddies names are inscribed.
I filled the iron with water.
“You need some spray starch?” Pam asked.
It’s not easy picking out burial clothes. It’d be so much better if people would just make a post-it note and stick it to the bathroom mirror. “If I die today, please put me in the blue dress.” Or “Forget the suit. Give me a polo instead.”
When Eddie got married Gordon bought a fine suit. He called it his marrying and burying suit. But then the nurse told him he was obese and Gordon hated that word so he put himself on a low-fat diet and lost 40 pounds. He liked to say he was “twisted steel and sex appeal.” He had some ditty he was always saying. Something he wrote. It was funny, like a country boy’s rap song and I wish I could repeat it all for you tonight but my brain is in the rhythm of ironing and all I can think about is the way the steam from the iron makes everything so smooth. If you take your time, all the wrinkles get worked out.
Gordon gave his burial suit away after he lost all that weight.
You can buy suits from the funeral homes. That’s an odd thing. Buying a suit to wear when you die that you never wore when you were alive. Why would anyone do that?
So Pam found the navy suit coat. He’d hardly ever wore it. The pockets were still stitched closed. But then, what pants? The gray ones? Can’t be the black ones? What about khaki? That looks good with navy. Like a prep school look. No? Hey look, says Eddie, here’s some more pants. He pulls out a pair of navy ones. They’ll do.
And the shirt? Which shirt?
Pam pulls out some blue ones. I reach for the one in the package. The golden yellow one. I don’t recall it being the Volunteer shirt. It was a tad too bright, Pam thought. But then we put it under the jacket with the tie and it worked, perfectly. And she handed me the Manchu Keep Up the Fire lapel pin and I pinned it to the jacket.
That’s when I took the shirt.
Brenda helped me set up the ironing board, and Pam got me the spray starch.
And I stood over the board in the kitchen, ironing Gordon’s shirt. It’s such a simple task, this ironing bit. I wished I’d had an hour to linger over it. I had so many things to pray about and ironing is far more compatible to the reflective life than driving is. Nobody every cites you for speeding while ironing.
This time, however, I wasn’t praying to ask God to heal Gordon. I wasn’t asking God for anything. I was praying to simply thank God for the gift of Gordon’s friendship.
I know because he told me so many times that our friendship helped Gordon work out some of life’s wrinkles, and he was always one to help me find the starch when I needed it most.
I feel all crumpled up inside now that Gordon’s gone.