Sunflower Mandala

Ironing: a Pathway to Mindfulness?

Stay present as you press


Sophie cropped

You want ironin’? Ask Norma Rae. I’m terrible at it, even though I learned from an ironing guru, my grandmother Sophie Pottok. With hands made strong by years in the millinery trade, she would power-iron my father’s shirts, slamming the iron down like a boss while keeping the fabric stretched taught with her free hand. “You have to press hard,” she told me as I watched her work.  

Sophie turned a chore into an art form as she glided, wiggled, and punched iron to fabric. The iron was her paint brush, the board her canvas. I loved to watch as she expertly turned a shirt this way and that with a flourish to better nudge the iron tip into hard-to-reach places. “Don’t forget to use the whole board,” she would remind me as she eased a shirt sleeve over the tapered edge to press the shoulder clean and crisp.

Besides doing most of our family’s ironing, Sophie kept busy at her basement worktable while my sister and I grew up, mending and hemming; sewing curtains and Halloween costumes; embroidering dresser scarves, pillows, and guest towels; and crafting Christmas duck pillow closeupdecorations out of felt that she embellished with sequins and fancy stitches. 

Sometimes Sophie would reminisce about her job at Loeser’s, a luxury Brooklyn department store founded in the late 19th century. At Loeser’s, Sophie copied designer hats that were brought back from Paris by the store’s buyer. She spoke lovingly of those hats, their fine details and their beauty, and I could tell that Sophie would have loved to go to Paris, too.

I never had my grandmother’s skill, didn’t cultivate the patience to iron a perfect button placket. And I never, ever pressed hard enough.

Sophie’s creations are in my home and on my tree at Christmastime, but others recently resurfaced, polishing faded memories to chrome. I was packing my parents’ belongings for their move to assisted living, and during the purge, forgotten treasures emerged, closet-buried, wrinkled, and stained. There was an old favorite of mine, a white linen dresser scarf embroidered at each end with a dainty lady holding a parasol. And pieces that I didn’t recognize, including a plain pink dresser scarf that Sophie appliquéd with a smaller, fancier one, probably to make it look prettier.

Ironing: a pathway to mindfulness

Once my parents were settled, I washed batches of dresser scarves, doilies, and curtains. But the iron loomed. I hadn’t ironed in a couple of years, and dreaded it. I procrastinated (won’t the hot iron damage the old fabrics?) and almost talked myself out of the task (I’ll do a lousy job anyway). Reluctantly, I dragged the ironing board from the bedroom closet and filled the iron with water.

I didn’t get off to a good start. I fumbled to get the board up and set to the right height, and nearly sprayed starch into my eye. But after I struggled through the warmup, the practice became smooth—and surprisingly familiar—as if I’d just stepped onto my yoga mat. 

This wasn’t ironing as I remembered it. My hands were stronger, more capable. From determination? From years of yoga practice? From years of opening jars of tomato sauce? Maybe all of the above, I don’t know. But I never ironed like this in my life. I was mindful, content, rooted in the moment, enjoying it even. 

And, for the first time, I pressed hard enough. I crashed iron to board—smash!—as if banging a gong. In concert, the steaming iron made its own music, hissing the heated breath of ujjayi. 

Did Sophie’s spirit guide me that day? Was it the childhood memories that drove me? Or have I just grown up, and now better understand that no matter how sweet the memories, the best place to be is in the present, where we can find both peace and strength.

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