A Meditation on Hankies



Those who know me well know that, by any measure, I am a lousy housekeeper.  And I am a lover of handkerchiefs, small white squares that I wear daily, tucked into the stretchy band of my Mickey Mouse watch.


Tonight, I am thinking of Margaret, who kept the house that I grew up in clean and tidy.  I see her in our kitchen, ironing deftly, the smell of starch and warm cotton familiar, homey, collars and sleeves giving up their wrinkles at her expert hands.


Margaret Grace McShane Tate ironed with confidence, skill, certainty.  I admired her brisk, confident movements.  She never seemed annoyed by my chatter.


Ironing eludes me.  It seems I put more wrinkles into garments than I take out.   Except for hankies.


My friend, Diane, a colleague from my New York school, ironed her Laura Ashley blouses for fun.  Fun?  I cannot imagine.


The snow day allows me to make soup—a domestic talent I do possess—and catch up on the hankies.  I bring the pile of clean, crumpled hankies up from the basement, clear a space on the counter, plug in the iron, douse the hankies with water to dampen them, lay dishtowel on the counter, find the spray starch and begin.


I can just manage ironing a square.  Spritz, spritz, run the iron round the corners, fold in half, iron down the fold, fold again, finish off the quarter.  Add to the damp finished stack.


My mother always had a hankie up her sleeve or in her purse.  When she died, I took a pile from her drawer; they smelled like her.


Now, I search for them at antique fairs in the summer, at flea markets. I like white ones the most, with a lace edge, but nothing too fancy because I use them—not to blow my nose, of course, but to wipe my leaking left eye. 


The eye doctor says it’s an allergy and the allergist says it’s an eye problem, but it runs, all seasons, and hankies are gentler than Kleenex.


When Jane died last summer, Maggie laid some costume jewelry, scarves and hankies out in the bedroom.  I tucked several hankies into my bag, bringing a little bit of Brooklyn Jane home to Ohio.


In my mother’s dresser, made from the doors of the Baldwin Locomotive Company her grandfather ran, I’ve devoted a whole drawer to my hankies.


They could do with sorting.


Some are too fragile for every day use, the fine cotton full of holes, but it’s hard for me to toss them, so they remain at the back of the drawer. 


Several have ink stains on them, proof that they occasionally end up in the bottom of my book-bag, in close proximity to an uncapped pen.


After the white ones, ones with red edges are my favorites.  The loud floral ones get neglected, left in the drawer, pristine.


When one of my girls gets married—one of my students—and I am invited to the wedding, I give her a bride’s hankie.  They are harder to find these days, very expensive and ornate.


Some I own are still stitched onto the cardboard backing that held them. I think about old general stores whose unsold stock was bought up and spread across the country.


 My sister gave me a set of white hankies stitched with metallic thread, unused, on our wedding day.  I used my nail scissors to cut one from its cardboard, slid it gently from underneath a ribbon. I suspect it was as old as the dress I wore, my grandmother’s dress, from 1912.


The little girls at school always ask why I have a tissue at my wrist.  I explain about handkerchiefs.


Friends who know me well know of my collection, my obsession, and sometimes give me lovely new additions. Sara sent me two this week; she had found them cleaning out her father’s house. They are both Liberty prints, never taken from their plastic. I adore them.


Now, if I appear without one, colleagues ask about their absence.  Habit carries with it expectation.  Hence, the need to iron. 


My husband finds my handkerchiefs littered about the house; I take them off when I am cooking or when I get home.  They exasperate him.


Sometimes, I wear the same one two days in a row, if I haven’t used it for my eye.


Occasionally, I’ll lend one to a crying child—or grown up.


I was particularly close to my younger daughter’s class; for their graduation, I went on E-bay and found lots and lots of hankies.  I laundered them and ironed them and gave each girl her own. 


We bought an old treadle sewing machine once, and in one of the drawers, nestled several hankies.  Who owned them? What had her life been like?


The other day, Emily, my massage therapist, returned one to me that I had left behind.  I was so glad not to have realized its loss before it came back to me.

Mrs. Shihadeh in Eagles Mere had a tiny shop, and when I was a little girl, sometimes we bought hankies there—ones with cats or ducks or bunnies on them, mostly. 


In Europe, linen stores still sell hankies, arranged in long, flat drawers.  I bought one in Bruges when I was fourteen.  It’s scratchy.


When did women start carrying hankies and when did they stop?  It’s an affectation, I know, an anachronistic touch, but I like it, like this way of reaching back into the past.


If I ever go to Ireland, I will look for a handkerchief and wear it at my wrist and think about Margaret, who kept our house clean, who loved me, and whose ironing inspires me still.