The mother's iron is a metaphor for the recurring "wrinkles" of guilt that she experiences as she recalls the past:
I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
The tone of the protagonist's narrative movement back and forth into the past is reflective, rueful, and at times quite analytical. Reflecting upon her parenting experiences and the past, the mother remarks,
There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
- She regrets having had to work when Emily was a baby because her husband left her. Nevertheless, she tried to work evenings so she could be with her baby during the day, but Emily would cry whenever she saw her mother because she was away too much.
- After she is forced to leave Emily with her father's family,the mother is riddled with guilt. When she can finally afford to provide for Emily, she notices with regret that her pretty baby has been lost to the marks of chicken pox.
- When the mother is forced to place Emily in daycare, she later feels guilty because she learns that nurseries were merely "parking places" for children. She feels further guilt because there were signs of the "evil" of the teacher. For instance, she ridiculed a boys who refused to go outside, and, Emily hated the place, giving her mother a reason why they should stay home.
But never a direct protest, never rebellion.... I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?
- Upon reflection, the mother recalls an old neighbor who told her she should smile more at Emily. Now, she feels guilty that she only showed Emily the face of "care or tightness or worry."
- When Emily contracted the measles, the mother would not sit with her if she had a nightmare, unless she got up for another daughter, Susan. Now, Emily rejects the mother's overtures.
- The mother especially rues sending Emily to a convalescent home after she had measles.
- Because she felt guilt over the lack of attention that Emily had as a girl, the mother would sometimes keep her home along with her sister, Susan. But, Emily has strong competition in Susan.
- Finally, reflecting upon the present, the mother declares that Emily is "Somebody" who is funny and comedic but, she tells her mother "everything and nothing." Sadly, the mother concludes, "I will never total it all...My wisdom came too late. Urging the counselors to "help her to know" that Emily is more than a dress being ironed, "helpless before the iron," the mother lovingly places faith in her daughter.