Pressing Lessons

Did you ever feel the frown of a ghost gently admonish you with a look that spoke much more than two or three words?

It happened to me yesterday morning as I was pulling the front door of the block of apartments where I live, rush down a flight of stairs and dash around the corner to breathe easy at the bus stop just a few paces away.  I was just two minutes later than usual and missing the only bus that rolls past – not always punctually – where I live is an agro deal when I’m off to work. So, you can imagine the fluster I was in. The type that made an overlooked speck on my left shoe fade into total inconsequence.

And yet, though a zillion percent certain that no one else would notice it in the dawning light, or give a toss if they did, it bothered me enough to go to the bathroom to wipe it off the moment I walked into the office.  Fussy! Silly! Whatever, I felt better and glad to have placated my father’s ghost.

My dearest father who polished his lace-up shoes (no other style would do) with effortless zeal every morning without fail. The next day although you could still see your face in them, sure enough, he would be at it again to kick start his morning grooming ritual. His morning shave and shower plus the shower he took before going to bed was HIS SACRED TIME – the only time he was not to be disturbed.

I could write a manual about how he ironed all our clothes with such impeccable precision that all the knife-edged creases survived rounds of tossing and spinning in the washing machine.

‘Like so,’ he told me when years ago he taught me how to press shirts, trousers, pyjamas, handkerchiefs, sheets, tea towels, aprons, the works. Dresses, jackets, blouses, socks and scarves demanded a different technique; yet the end result was still a perfect press.

He would even fold his shirts so that once done, they looked as if they were just being unwrapped for the first time. The way he put them away in his chest of drawers resembled the exactness of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which he loved. Only the colors were different since he liked plain white and pastel colours with the occasional very fine stripe. My father never wore a medium or dark-colored shirt.

Once, my brother sent him a black shirt which made my father almost collapse inwardly. Far from saying a word that would hurt my brother’s feelings he typically kept everything to himself, even ironed it with the same care. It spent a few years at the very bottom of one of his shirt drawers scented with Imperial Leather soap like all the rest but eventually was gifted to a priest at our parish. Although I suspected the answer, I did pluck enough courage to kind of ask him to give it a try. ‘Not my style,’ came the reticent retort. For him, a black shirt connoted Mussolini’s fascists instantly leading to his brutal war experiences which he kept firmly under lock and key.

I’m sure readers are rolling their eyes at what may be termed compulsive behavior. I think that my father was naturally neat and organized, also that he would have invented the clothes iron if it did not exist.

Another time, I teased him about British butlers ironing the newspaper every morning before presenting it on a silver tray to their aristocratic masters. My father smiled broadly at this adding that it was the done thing though as far as he was concerned, he had no intention of ironing any newspapers.

Meanwhile, my mother only made use of the clothes iron when she ironed curtains once in a blue moon. She knew how lucky she was and astutely stated that Dad’s ironing skills were second to none. Eventually, I was the one who took over though not with the same stellar results.

Ever since his passing, my ironing brings back so many memories of the most mundane but ever special moments, such as him calling me to help fold the sheets and how a remark would often lead to discussion and advice or unfold one of his yarns which spilled over with even more guidance. One of my absolute favourites unravelled how he had sewn a pair of sheets from discarded parachutes made of silk and which he had asked for permission to take when he was stationed in Cyrenaica that’s eastern Libya. (Dad had been enlisted with the RAF during WW2.) One inspection morning, the high-ranking officer scrutinising every detail was gobsmacked at the sight of the silken sheets and questioned my father (sixteen at the time) about how he had got hold of them. My father told him the truth which garnered the retort:

‘I, the Wing Commander sleep on a bed without sheets, while you a gunner have a pair of silk sheets!!! Strip your bed and give them to me!’

My father smiled and obeyed orders without saying a word.

The first time I heard this I was mad at the sheer injustice of it all and berated my father about being so meek.

‘Noemi, you are too young to understand how the military works, besides being Maltese (read colonised subject) put me at yet another disadvantage.’

This had me seething. But the story does not end there.

My father had spoken up with his eyes looking straight into the Wing Commander’s gaze. An expression that gets you thinking and conscience pricking without a hint of disdain or disrespect. It was an expression he wore when he was hurt or disappointed at something and which made you want to undo the hurt at lightning speed while filling you with remorse for days on end.

The very next day, my father found a parcel on his sheet less bed. It contained two parachutes with a signed note from the Wing Commander thanking him, asking him to kindly replace what he had taken and looking forward to another pair for himself. My father obliged with another note of thanks. Unlimited access to more parachutes followed.

This is the story through which I also learned that used parachutes were highly prized as fabric for wedding gowns of pure silk. There were so many other stories of his past, stories of when my brother and I were babies, of what he intended to cook which was his favourite pastime. I sometimes have snippets of silent conversation with him and smile to myself at how he would have beaten a pesky crease in his typical no fuss, unruffled manner. In contrast, I’d be revving up my blood pressure.

A few weeks back when I accidentally scalded a tea towel it brought back the memory of how I had done the same thing to a really pretty white cotton dress I wanted to wear for a party one particular summer evening. The offensive stain was no bigger than my fingertip on my right hip but highly visible against a white background. While Mum gave me a harangue, Dad came to my rescue. It was his idea to hide the flaw with one of Mum’s chiffon flowers. The one I chose was looking a bit tired, So, he steamed it and added another magical touch before pinning it to my dress. How had he learned this trick? One of his aunts had been Malta’s top-tier milliner who had sadly passed away during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Another fount of fascinating family anecdote.

When we were teenagers, my brother would chuckle his: ‘There goes RAF Dad again!’ at ironing time and leave a pile of his stuff for Dad to dampen, steam and iron filling the room with wondrous wafts of freshly laundered clothes. I would do the same but not always swan off. Not only did my father never mind, he got the whole pile done with pleasure and we would get back to find all our clothes laid out so lovingly on our respective beds. He never opened any of our drawers and wardrobes. He would even ensure that whatever we wore – Mum included – was flawlessly pressed before going out. Also, that our shoes were polished to a shine.

He had a way of eyeing us almost without us noticing though we surely felt his scrutiny. A frown would halt us in our tracks. A curt but never cutting remark meant something was amiss and we’d have to do something about it. ‘How smart!’ was all that he would say if we made the grade. Best of all was the twinkle in his eye which beat any effusive compliment hollow.

Now that I mull over how he indulged and disciplined us makes me realise the truckloads of time and patience he put into our upbringing. Also, the risks he took.  Did he intuit or simply hope that we would one day live up to our Zarb genes? (Oh yes, all his brothers and sisters had/have an identical perception of grooming.)  Ever since he got married decades back, my brother is the one who does the ironing at his home. He’s even in charge of the laundry which Dad never did.  My sister-in-law is another lucky woman. I don’t need to ask him whether he gets flashes of Dad as he plugs in the clothes iron.

The more time passes, the more I marvel at how him being short of words and long in leading by example taught us much more than the importance of looking good and honouring the occasion which by extension was a lesson in preparation. Also, that there is an appropriate time and place for what and how to do what we have to get done. There were no homilies or lengthy sparring in his giving advice. When he disagreed with anyone’s way of thinking he simply said so and why. No threats or yells. The message that we had to face the consequences of our actions and deal with our conscience was invariably clear.


Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. Pressing Pants is all about love, a heartfelt ode to a daughter’s every-lasting feelings for her father–but this is not merely a beautiful reminiscence. IT SINGS. Here we have such inspired writing the words and memories dance off the page–so we too are reunited with a seminal force in our lives, the writing is that graceful and powerful. But perhaps this love song is to be expected since Zarb is an exceptional writer, one who knows how to create atmospherics in her story telling, a rich context that brings all of us into the drama. She is a talent, read her, and be enriched

    • A heartfelt thank you, Edward, for your time and once again fulsome comments. Far too kind. Admittedly, writing about my father has been more than emotional for me for it is not easy to impart what kind of man he was. Thank you once again.

  2. I’ve been trying to put pen to paper for a couple of days now after reading my sister’s article about my Dad entitled “Pressing Lessons”. Yes, that was my Dad to a “T”. As I write my comments sitting next to the Christmas Tree, I cannot help thinking about my Dad making the best traditional British Christmas Pudding and mince pies, and even after all these years I cannot spend the Christmas Holidays without Christmas Pudding and mince pies. One particular memory that comes to mind every Christmas is this small wind-up nativity set which mom’s friend from Germany had sent us which played “Silent Night”. I can never forget the gleam in my Dad’s eyes every time I wound it up and he listened to it. I think that was his favorite Christmas Carol. Yes, what my sister wrote captured the very essence of my father. I cherish his calmness, his logical arguments and reasoning, how neat and organized he was, and most of all his “everything is going to be all right” attitude. I still get a flood of memories of my Dad going back to my childhood when while doing the pressing he would tell me stories and impart his wisdom on several topics. It’s no surprise that I have flashes of my Dad with his sweet smile and that gleam in his eyes when I get compliments from my colleagues on my pressed shirts and polished shoes. Yes, I still do my own ironing and never leave the house with unpolished shoes. This tradition is being passed on to the next generation since my adult son has picked up on his grandfather’s and father’s traits as he does the ironing himself in his household. I guess, the apples don’t fall far from the tree! I love you Dad.

    • Oh Bert I can only reply with more tears. Christmas is simply not the same without Dad. Great to hear that Dale is one very good apple falling from the Zarb tree and to think that a tree is right in the middle of our family crest!

    • Grazie mille, Claudio per il tuo apprezzamento e i tuoi commenti molto sentiti. Spero sinceramente che questa parte abbia riacceso meravigliosi ricordi del tuo passato. Grazie di nuovo.

      Thank you ever so much, Claudio for your appreciation and heartfelt comments. I sincerely hope that this piece has enkindled wonderful memories of your own past. Thank once again.

  3. Thanks Noemi for what you have written and shared, with your inimitable style, as always … So engaging and enveloping … And how beautiful the feeling was when reading these memories of yours …
    They are alive, they immerse in these rich experiences of yours, that you can make them breathe … I also think that anyone who has read has been led, like me, to their own introspection, to revive their memories …
    Dear … far away … that when they come back they make you think about how important they have been and are in my life. Perfumes, smells, gestures, habits … we all have … but only each of us can recognize. Moments that break and completely separate from the convulsive reality in which we find ourselves … Meditation that brings us back to our true reality. Thank you very much to Naomi next time…

  4. Grazie Noemi di quanto hai scritto e condiviso, con il tuo inimitabile stile, come sempre… Così coinvolgente e avvolgente… E che bella la sensazione avuta leggendo questi tuoi ricordi …
    Sono vivi, immergono in queste tue esperienze così ricche, che tu riesci a far respirare…Penso anche che chiunque abbia letto è stato portato, come me, a una propria introspezione, a far rivivere i propri ricordi…
    Cari… lontani… che quando tornano fanno pensare a quanto importanti sono stati e sono nella mia vita. Profumi, odori, i gesti, le abitudini… che abbiamo tutti… che però solamente ognuno di noi può riconoscere. Momenti che spezzano e distaccano completamente dalla realtà convulsa in cui ci troviamo… Meditazione che ci riporta alla nostra vera realtà. Ti ringrazio molto Noemi, alla prossima …

    • Thank you John for your warm words. Much, much appreciated. I have no doubt that you would have loved getting to know my father, though I say it again and again that I do not stand within his shadow.

    • Thank you ever so much, Tania, for your time and appreciation. My memories of my dad are indeed beyond cherishable.

  5. Oh wow Noemi! After reading this.. I will never iron again without thinking about this, you and your reflections of your father. This is full of memories and delicately weaved within the activity of ironing. A lesson in zen I would say. Thank you for this. Paula

    • Thank you ever so much, Paula, for your time and appreciation. I need hardly tell you that my ironing is never a question of flattening creases. But apart from bringing so many memories, I have long found ironing clothes an ideal time for reflection to plan and sort things out in my head.

  6. Noemi, thank you for sharing this story. Your love for your father is evident in every line. He sounds like the kind of person I would have loved to meet. My dad was a man of few words (I wish he said more) but was also a great example to my brothers & sisters (8 of us) of what devotion looked like. Great story, wonderfully written.

    • Thank you so much, Mike, for your time and appreciation. I think reticence was part of the stoicism of my father’s generation, though this is also a notable trait of introverts, which my father definitely was. Great to hear of your own father’s devotion. What an eventful family life you must have had growing up in such a big family!

  7. Great story Noemi! I read through your article thinking about my experiences with my own father, and how, in his heyday, nothing could stop him from doing what he wanted to – except for himself. To this day, I still marvel at how someone who only completed primary school could effortlessly pull apart and refurbish and rebuild a motor (didn’t matter what it was, they were all the same to him!) without a manual or guide – just a heap of insight, a dash of improvisation and a little translation between what he’d experienced beforehand and what was in front of him – the very things that I see in myself these days. – Jason

    • Thank you, Jason, for your time and appreciation. I am so glad that it brought wonderful memories of your own father. He must have been a born mechanic. The tenacity and resourcefulness of their generation truly had no limits. And it’s great that you are carrying the same flame!

  8. Noemi, your father sounds like an extremely interesting soul. Someone that helped all of you rise to your best.

    I must say when I read about his ironing (I know that was not your point, but bear with me) my grandmother from England used to iron her sheets, her pantyhose, and her underwear and it always was a marvel for me to observe. She flawless in her dress and garb and was a woman of few but very honest and succinct words in which you knew where you stood with her. She was one of the loves of my life and someone I learned from in the best of ways.

    It sounds like as you are getting older you have so much more appreciation for him and perhaps you are more and more like him.

    A joy to read and I send you warm greetings for the holidays. I hope you and the Zarb family are able to share together the season…

    • Thank you so much, Maureen, for your time and appreciation. I smiled at your comments about your British grandmother because she sounds just like my father’s soul sister. In fact, the old British stamp explains it all for my father was an Anglophile through and through.

      I wish I could say that I am like my father but I do not stand within his shadow.

      Thank you also for your warm greetings. May the joy of Christmas fill your heart and the hearts of all your dearest.

  9. Noemi, I love this story! Your father sounded like an amazing man. I marvel at his attention to the most minute if details. Through you I see a man who dearly loved his family while wanting only the best for them. Your writing reflects the same meticulous attention to detail. This story was beautifully written while Al’s tugging at my heartstrings as this is sadly not what many people do anymore. Thank you for sharing this enchanting and captivating story.

    • Thank you so much, Joel, for your time and insights. I don’t mean to brag but my dad was an amazing man because he did not know how to bear grudges and accepted whatever life threw at him with an unwavering commitment to keep on loving no matter the heartache. It took me years to realise how extraordinary his ordinariness was and I am still in awe of this.

    • Noemi, I do n ok t feel that you are bragging about your father. You loved him and that love shines brightly in your words. Your article touched me very deeply. Both of my parents have long since passed and I miss them as much today as the day they died. Thank you, Noemi for reminding us how special a parents love is.

    • Noemi, you are not bragging about your father You loved your father which is wonderful. Your statements about him hmade me smile. Both of my parents have long since passed away but I love them no less today than when they were alive. Your article meant. a lot to me personally because of the fact too many think poorly of their parents for no good reason.

    • Thank you once again, Joel. It’s always a good feeling when you feel a parent’s glow embracing you even especially after they are long gone. It is indeed sad that some people think ill of their parents for no good reason’.

  10. This is such a special and sentimental story Noemi, and I can feel the love you still have for your father and the memories he I mprinted. Honestly this reads like a timeless Gordon Lightfoot song, very tender reflections captured in an old bottle. I know your feelings on mindless wars, of which I wholeheartedly agree, and although I also served in the military, there are so many brave and distinguished souls who wear the uniform. I was fortunate to have great mentors during my service. I learned how to write in the U.S. Army, how to use a camera and ask rooted questions, it was the best time in my life. These great people gave me something even more special that I really didn’t have before I entered the military… guidance. Before this, my own father was a weekend dad. We bonded well enough when I was very young, but I have very little in common with him. I still struggle to communicate and share with him as an adult, and in many ways he is like a living ghost. I’ll leave it on this note, we only get one chance to build special memories. If you have children, spend that same time your father shared with you with your own kids. Share the rituals and time to make it special for them, so even after you’re gone they can carry you in their hearts as well as their minds… You have a lovely weekend my friend.

    • Thank you ever so much, Aaron, for your warm words. Much appreciated. Sadly, I do not have any children. It pains me to hear about your father. Great weekend to you too.

    • Many thanks for your time and appreciation Annamaria. I am so sorry to hear that your father passed away when you were so young and hope that cherished memories help to come to terms with the void. I don’t care how mad it may seem, but I still speak to my dad and wave at his photographs.

  11. Noemi this is such a great story. Sometimes doing what some would say ordinary is in truth the ritual of meditation and reflection. My Daddy would have enjoyed meeting your daddy. maybe it was that generation. I learned more from what my daddy didn’t say.

    • Thank you ever so much, Larry. Looking back, I too learned a great deal from what Dad never said reminding me of the so-called empty spaces between stanzas which are anything but empty.

      How right you are about the ritual of meditation and reflection in mundane rituals. I actually love ironing clothes because it helps me to plan things out and think things over while I’m smoothing out the creases – very much like ironing out the wrinkles from daily life.

      There is something so remarkable about the men and women of that generation – the extraordinary qualities in their ordinariness rendering them a constant epiphany. I hope that our dads have met in heaven.