My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).
Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.
But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.
The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.
Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.
When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.
What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.
It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)
Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.
This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.
Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?
My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.
I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.
Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.
And often, quite beautiful.