Hankie logic

The handkerchief is plain but not simple.

By Sarah Lehman
Published April 29, 2002 6:30PM (EDT)

My mother was a great believer in handkerchiefs. Like silver napkin rings and well-polished shoes, handkerchiefs separated those who were properly brought up from those who were not -- they were one more outward sign of a life correctly led, priorities correctly set and implicit hierarchies correctly understood and maintained.

A freshly ironed handkerchief belonged in every little girl's Sunday school purse, along with a shiny new quarter for the collection plate. A lacy handkerchief belonged in every lady's evening bag, together with a comb and a pink lipstick and something called "mad money."

My father's dresser drawer was incomplete without a neat stack of Irish linen or Egyptian cotton squares, each one geometrically perfect and emblazoned with his monogram crisply in the corner. There was no difference in our home between handkerchiefs for showing and those for blowing. A flashy pocket square was the mark of self-indulgent foppery, but a proper handkerchief was a sign of correctness, moral rectitude and preparedness. Handkerchiefs let you know who you were and how you got there.

Handkerchiefs were always a sensible present for people in one's life whom one didn't know too well and didn't particularly need to know better: fourth-grade teachers, maiden aunts, anonymous co-workers. Like their intended recipients, I found them tepid, frigid, cloying. Still, they advertised one's sensibilities in an unobtrusive way, never gave actual offense and were safely appropriate in an infinite number of gift-giving situations.

When my mother began to give me handkerchiefs for Christmas (I was in my early 20s), I thought it was a sign that she thought my standards were slipping, and my cheeks burned from the judgment I thought was implied in those little bits of linen and lace. Then I realized that the truth was even worse: We had grown so far apart that she no longer knew me well enough to choose something more personal. Handkerchiefs, like books of nature photography or lavender-scented drawer sachets, were the ever-acceptable, all-purpose gifts that no stranger (save me) would fail to appreciate.

Despite all my mother's imprecations, I have never become a handkerchief user myself. Like many of my generation, I keep an inexhaustible supply of Kleenex and a have generalized dread of extra laundry. Still, I have boxes and boxes of handkerchiefs stored away in an old steamer trunk at the foot of my bed and when my cats occasionally deign to sleep somewhere else, I get the rare opportunity to sort through the collection.

Some handkerchiefs I've had since childhood, old faded floral squares that were relics of my mother's own days at boarding school, one or two with her name tapes still sewn along the hem. There are infinite variations on the scrolls of my monogram -- some sinuous and beguiling, others virginal and prim.

There's one trimmed with a filigree of lace that Mom brought back from a trip to Belgium only a year or so ago, another with a spray of cross-stitched violets in the corner. I know that I will never use it, not being a spray-of-violets sort of person, but I still can't bear to throw it out, imagining some old Belgian woman with a face like an apple-doll spending hours stitching it by firelight. It sits in its box as stiff and fresh as it was the day I received it and struggled for adjectives to express my barely existent gratitude. The creases are still intact and the linen is so fine you can almost read the whorls of your fingerprints through it.

There's one handkerchief trimmed with startling orange poppies and sprays of rosebuds that I don't pretend to know the provenance of, but which makes me smile from its sheer exuberant garishness. There used to be one adorned with lily of the valley and a delicate fagoted edge, and I'm faintly sad to discover that I no longer know where it is.

Further down the pile is a trio of white-on-white embroidered creations that I bought on a street corner in Hong Kong, each one dripping with orgies of blossoms and butterflies like some great storybook wedding cake. There's a postage-stamp scrap of linen trimmed with an enormous lace flounce that played some symbolic, but now forgotten, ritual role in my own wedding some 12 or so years ago.

There are even two larger squares, almost Amish in their simplicity, remnants of that same marriage and my attempts to impress upon a disbelieving then-husband the importance of proper handkerchiefs to his future career success. Like much of the marriage, it was a spectacularly unsuccessful effort, but sometimes even the effort is worth preserving for posterity.

Handkerchiefs must be approaching their eventual extinction in the great forward march of textile evolution. I suspect that my children will grow up thinking of them as archeological curiosities, alongside such oddities as vinyl records, rotary telephones and carriage-return typewriters.

Still, when my mother-in-law died and there were only six hours to pack, organize family and board a plane for California, I found myself spending much of that time ironing handkerchiefs -- for myself, for my ex-husband, for any of his relatives who might find themselves without a real handkerchief in their deepest hour of grief. There was relief in the predictable routines of the task: wetting down the linen with the special sprinkler bottle, hearing the spit and, as the iron made first contact with the cloth, pulling the dampened edges into perfect trim and square, then draping the fresh, white squares over the drying rack to cool.

That funeral was the only occasion that I can really remember using a handkerchief, reaching for it in my bag and finding genuine comfort in its solid, physical presence amid the transience and disposability of that Los Angeles autumn afternoon. A handkerchief isn't much to hold onto but at that particular moment, it was enough. And I've kept that one, stained with mascara and smudges of unfortunately chosen violet eyeliner. I'll never be able to use it again, of course, but it's a silent 8-by-8 acknowledgment that my mother just might have been right.

Sarah Lehman

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