Definition of handkerchief
1 : a small usually square piece of cloth used for usually personal purposes (such as blowing the nose) or as a clothing accessory
I am pulling a bread bag over the dressing on my left foot before heading out into the lightly slushy parking lot. My colleague (also a Pam) and I are laughing. We’re remembering wearing bread bags inside our boots as children. The bags kept socks dry when boots leaked.
And we wore those boots, leaks or not, until our feet no longer fit in them. Sometimes, we even passed those hole-y boots down. Lots of families, in those old days of single incomes and multiple kids, did not buy new boots every year. We kids did what our frugal, Depression-kid parents bid us to do: we reused, repurposed and recycled.
Bread bags in my boots! It could have been humiliating, dancing in the school hallway, frantic to peel that bag off without putting my knee-socked foot into kid-tracked slush, then worming that foot into cold shoes carried to school in a bag. It WOULD have been humiliating, except that, all up and down the hallways, my classmates and schoolmates were doing the same bread bag bossa nova.
Was that a generational thing? I look up ‘bread bags on feet’ online and uncover five pages of articles, essays, and updates on this topic. I message some nieces and nephews, eighties kids, and they say, no: they also used bread bags. But my niece and nephew who grew up rural say they put the bread bags OVER the boots.
Bread bags go INSIDE, insists another niece, one who grew up in a little industrial city.
Huh, I think: there’s even bread bag controversy.
My controversy was having to wear them in the first place. I remember vowing that, when I went to work, I would buy myself new boots each year. As God was my witness, I’d never wear bread bags again.
And here I am, 65 years old, pulling a bread bag over a bulky, wrapped foot, stretching one hand back through the pool of time, and tagging my twelve-year old self.
There are things I have left behind, firmly and decisively. Sometimes, they STAY left. And sometimes, like the bread bag, they creep back into the latter part of my life.
I have handkerchiefs in my bathrooms these days; I do not have kleenex. I thought about the amount of stuff I was throwing into the trash, into landfills, into—God forbid—the ocean, and I realized that some things just had to go.
Facial tissues were one of those things. They come in cardboard boxes with plastic inserts, and every single part of the package winds up in a trash can, flushed away, or, worse, haunting a forgotten pocket or purse for eons until, discovered, the hard, clumpy, little things meet their belated fates.
So grownup me decided no more disposables. I’d buy cloth handkerchiefs by the bundle and keep neatly folded stacks in the bathrooms and anyone—family or friend—who needed one could have one.
Grownup me was happy with that resolution.
Twelve-year-old me was jumping up and down on my 65-year old shoulder demanding to know what the HELL I was thinking. (Language, sweetie! I hollered backwards over the years.)
Handkerchiefs loomed large in my formative years. I was a sinus-y kid, and so I needed, always, to have a hanky with me. The problem was that even something as simple as using a handkerchief, in the 1960’s, became a gender issue. So my father had huge work hankies—they were, like, twice the size of a record album and had brown and red plaid borders. He and my brothers had large, sturdy, white handkerchiefs for school and church. But my mother and I,–on the assumption, I guess that dainty women produce only a dainty amount of mucous,–used dainty little squares of frothy cloth. They were often embroidered or stamped with lovely flowers.
They were never very effective. I was the kid whose nose was always running. My girlie hankies were reduced to sodden little balls within minutes of leaving the house. Touching those cold, wet clumps to my red, raw nose was pure torture.
I longed to have a big white boys’ handkerchief—or two! or three!—to take to school with me. But girls taking boys’ hankies? That just was not done.
Worse, as far as gender boundaries go, my brothers had nothing to do with handkerchiefs except to use them and toss them in the laundry chute. I, on the other hand, had to iron the darned things. I cut my ironing teeth on handkerchiefs, and I bemoaned the fact.
It wasn’t just taking the hot iron and pressing it to wrinkled cloth. Oh, no. First one filled a clean old ketchup bottle with water and screwed the lid, punctured five times with a nail, back on. Then one spread out, say, five handkerchiefs of the same size neatly atop each other.
One wielded the bottle, shaking it to dampen, but not soak, the cloth.
And then one rolled the damp handkerchiefs up into a ball, put them carefully into the bottom of the bushel basket, and started again with five new hankies. We, as a family, went through a lot of hankies, so this was a substantial chore.
Then the handkerchiefs had to be ironed, fairly fast. If the damp wore off, the whole process had to be done all over again.
So: hot iron, set to ‘cotton.’ Spread one handkerchief out flat. Use the pointy part of the iron to neatly flatten the edges. Then use the iron’s bottom to smooth out the entire cloth. Fold; iron again. Fold again; iron again. Now you have a slender row of cloth; fold in half the other way.
Then fold and iron again. Now you should have a perfectly ironed, crisp little square for someone to immediately ruin by sneezing into it.
Now peer down into the damp basket and realize there are about sixty more to go before you start on the girlie hankies way at the bottom.
Maybe…I could mow the lawn instead???
NO, said my mother and father, firmly and in unison.
I stuck my lower lip out and ironed with little grace. When I get big, I vowed, I am buying Kleenex.
Handkerchiefs, I think, represent, in microcosm, a history of the inequity of the sexes. I find, on https://strangeago.com/2018/01/07/history-of-the-handkerchief/, a handkerchief history.
I learn that the word itself is from the French, a compound of ‘ker,’ meaning to cover, and ‘chef,’ which referred to the head. (No tete???) Kerchiefs originally were head coverings, but as early as Greek and Roman days, they came to be tucked into belts, or even on necklaces, to used to wipe away sweat and grime.
In those warmer climes—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—colds were few, and people didn’t need those fabric squares for their noses so much. But the more northward folks roamed, and the colder and damper the climate became, the more those noses began to redden and run. People, especially ladies, turned those brow wipers into nose wipers.
And then barbarians conquered Rome, and an age of darkness descended. Who knows what methods were used in those dangerous days to relieve the nasal overflow? Who, really, wants to know?
We can just be glad that, as the darkness lifted, handkerchiefs returned to belts and pockets in Europe and Britain. Shakespeare mentions handkerchiefs (remember Othello?) so we know they were back in use by the time of THAT Queen Elizabeth.
The French, bluntly, called the cloth squares ‘nose-wipers’ (mouchoir); the Germans, who apparently had the habit, called them ‘snuff-cloths’ (schnupftuch). (My sons’ term of choice, ‘booger rags,’ suddenly doesn’t seem so completely inappropriate by contrast.)
And, as the handkerchief settled into common usage, people—especially female people—began to embellish theirs, with lace and embroidery and tassels.
So there came to be tiny, dainty, decorative hankies for upper crust, delicate, female sorts, and big, strong, working handkerchiefs—cloths that welcomed the powerful blows of the sinus-y working class. Lady handkerchiefs and man handkerchiefs, and those two forms marched right on through time. They marched right into the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they marched into my life to torment me.
New boots annually, Kleenex instead of cloth nose-wipers,—such were the urgent needs that sent me off to work as soon as I could find employment. Kleenex became a staple on my shopping list.
I stopped ironing handkerchiefs, and I stopped using them too. I liked it when each room in my house offered a box of soft kleenex close at hand.
But handkerchiefs didn’t disappear entirely from my life. One of the funny little things that endeared Mark to me, when we were first getting to know each other, was that he always had a clean, neatly folded (but never ironed) handkerchief in his pocket. If a kid had a runny nose, out came Mark’s hanky. If I got teary at a sentimental movie, he always had a clean hanky to offer.
I loved that thoughtful, quirky, almost anachronistic habit of his.
But I still bought Kleenex.
I bought them, that is, until that day of reckoning when I had to take a stark look at just how much waste I was responsible for tossing away into the environment.
And then I bought a lot of white cotton hankies—MAN hankies.
Now each laundry-load of whites includes a dozen or so handkerchiefs. We pull them from the dryer, fold them neatly into squares and distribute them between the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms.
I have a hankie in the pocket of every jacket.
I keep a hankie next to my bed.
But I do not iron those hankies, and, even though, every once in a while, a chipper little voice suggests it to me,—says, “Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if those hankies were flattened and creased???”,—I never plan to do so again.
We trudge through the formative sludge of our growing-up years, and, when we reach dry land, we stop, and we enjoy the sensation of slowly drying off in a warm wash of sun. And then we look around and say, “Gosh. Look at everything I’ve carried with me through all those years.”
We spread all that stuff out, and we sort.
Pinochle and chocolate?
Carry those forward.
The family fudge recipe?
On with me it goes.
A habit of writing thank you notes?
Yep, that one I’ll keep.
But wait—I’ll make a little heap of this other stuff: ugly, sensible shoes; three weeks of cleaning and scrubbing before putting up the Christmas tree; an insistence on iceberg lettuce only in dinner salads. I heap up a whole bunch of things like that, and I leave them in a neat little pile and go along my way.
I come back once in a while to throw something else—the cigarette habit, my beloved caffeinated coffee—onto the discard pile.
And then sometimes, after a very, very long time away, I come back and pick something up that I thought I’d left behind forever.
This week, I realized that I had stopped back and collected me some bread bags and some handkerchiefs. I tucked them into my backpack and went marching back on.
There are some things we leave behind and they are gone forever. Others wait patiently until we realize they are, after all, kind of important.
This makes me feel a little nostalgic, almost weepy. Lucky for me, I have a sturdy white hankie in my pocket, just in case a tear really does decide to fall.