Thursday, February 9, 2012


         A box of Kleenex can survive in our house for six months, sometimes even a year. Not because we never get colds or fight allergies, but because we use old fashioned handkerchiefs. These little square pieces of cloth decorated my childhood. My little purse, clutched in my hands as I sat in the church pew, contained a rosary, a nickel for the offering basket, and a lacy handkerchief. Easter baskets often included an embroidered square that I folded neatly next to my white gloves, resting both treasures in my top drawer along with my Troll dolls and Rat Finks.


         My father always carried white handkerchiefs, first during his Air Force years, and later as a deputy sheriff. I practiced my skills with the iron using his hankies, which puckered into tight, crinkled balls from the dryer’s heat. Each handkerchief required sprinkles of water, a hot iron set at cotton, and   rhythmic back and forth pressure to smooth them wrinkle free. I remember pressing out the rumples, and then folding the fabric in half. Using the tip of my iron, I’d set creases, fold again, crease again until each handkerchief stacked neatly into a regimented pile. The television kept me company during this chore, and I found it therapeutic in its repetition. I remember the pride I felt when my mother let me iron the sheets, and when I graduated to doing more complicated shirts and dresses, I felt honored with the trust this chore represented.

Dad's practical white;
Mom's new stripes

         My mother inherited Dad’s handkerchiefs. When she resided in an assisted living facility, she’d leave one here and another there. Some found their way back to her apartment because the aids trailed after her and swept them from the ground when she dropped them. Many never found their way home, so within a couple of months I raided her stash of new hankies that Dad had purchased, but never used. Before she misplaced all of his handkerchiefs, I decided to buy new ones just for Mom. It took me a while, but eventually I located nice sets at Kohl’s.
         Hankies fit Mom’s needs better than tissues. When her neurologist tried a new medication on her a few years ago, she drooled continuously. A wimpy tissue would never have absorbed her output! Hankies also offer a level of softness superior to tissues. Mom can blow her nose all day when she has a cold and never come out looking lie Rudolph. In a pinch, we’ve grabbed a handkerchief for a rag to sop up spills as well as using them instead of paper napkins.
         Recently, I’ve found myself tucking one of Dad’s hankies into my pocket or purse as I head out the door. I found comfort in clutching these soft squares of cloth as I sat through three funerals this winter. In a way, I’m carrying a part of my father with me in times of great sorrow. Within this society of disposable tissues, mops, dusters, and diapers the resilience of my father’s handkerchief symbolizes the continuity of life and traditions, even one as small as a hankie.   

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman


  1. This brings back many fond memories! I, too, remain very much a "hankie person." My ironing duties were similar to yours, including hankies for both parents and also the pillowcases. My entertainment was my old transistor AM radio,tuned to either a top 40 station or the Cubs game. I also remember many childhood trips to the hankie counter at our local department stores, as they were a traditional gift, affordable even on an allowance of $1.50 a week. There was always a lovely selection of fancy lace or floral prints; my father's were of course more conservative, sporting only an occasional monogram.

    Sadly, I have a hard time finding hankies today. Gone are the old fashioned local department stores with hankie counters. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to have received new stock from family members who traveled to Japan, where apparently the hankie is still in fashion. They are beautiful printed cotton, as soothing to my aesthetic sense as to my tender nose.

  2. Miranda,

    Thanks for sharing your memories! I think I may begin a Hankie Hunt when I go to antique shops.