ELIZA: What's this for?
Professor HIGGINS: To wipe your eyes. To wipe any part of your face that feels moist. Remember, that's your handkerchief and that's your sleeve. Don't confuse one with the other, if you want to become a lady in a shop. From “My Fair Lady”
Greetings Dear Ones!
We can tell by the sudden increase in Golfing memorabilia, Fishing memes, and Fart Jokes on Greeting cards that Father’s Day is rolling around again—It’s pretty much the only time of year that the rest of us ever shop at Cabella’s, right? If beings from outer space were to try to assemble an idea of Fatherhood from the greeting card section of the local shops, they might think fathers are a rather flatulent, poorly groomed subset of humanity, whose recreational rituals revolve around drinking beer while sitting in a boat, or playing some complicated sequence of swing, smash, and waddle that involves metal clubs and cursing at sand pits. Actual Children don’t seem to enter the picture at all. In fact, why anyone would leave such creatures in charge of their own offspring for an afternoon (or mate with them in the first place) boggles the mind.
Yet these are the very people we expect to teach our sons (and daughters) how true Gentlemen behave. Let’s step up our game here, people! This Father’s Day, don’t buy into this low-bar image of the men in our lives. They ARE better and they deserve better! Want a gift that is simple, classy, elegant and gross all rolled into one? Want the perfect gift for Dad? How about an old-fashioned handkerchief? A nice one. (I know one father in particular who will be damn lucky to be getting bread and water on Father’s Day! More on this later.) Maybe you could even take a square of linen, put a neat little rolled hem around the edge and make it yourself! The poet Emerson says “Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a stone; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing.” Anne Sullivan Macy did not share his sentiments about this one bit, saying “I'd rather break stones on the king's highway than hem a handkerchief.” It’s true—a fine, rolled hem is an act of exquisite and torturous love. But we digress.
Forget Swiss army knives and nostril-hair trimmers that double as bottle openers. A Handkerchief is the ultimate in multi-use gadgets. It’s not just for boogers. It functions as a first-aid kit, a mop, a temporary diaper, a dust mask, a sun hat, a signaling device, a water filtration system, a protective collection point for seashells, and something to hand to anyone sitting through “Steel Magnolias” for the umpteenth time. When it is not doing any of these things, it should be crisp and clean and folded into a nice, neat little square. Maybe Dad even needs two. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when school children were required to have a clean handkerchief at all times, their mothers often gave them two—“one for show and one for blow” so that they would always be able produce a clean one at inspection time.
Only since Kleenex did a bang-up marketing campaign, telling us “don’t carry a cold in your pocket” have handkerchiefs become unpopular and passé. But they are making a comeback. True gentlemen have never been without them since the Romans began carrying them in 1000 BC. They were mostly used to mop sweat but quickly became status symbols of the wealthy. Our modern word “handkerchief” actually means a small “kerchief” used by the hand. Kerchief comes from the French couvrir, which mean “to cover” and chef, which means “head.” Handkerchiefs even figure in Shakespearian plays like Cymbeline, As You Like It, and most dramatically in Othello, when a misunderstanding over a handkerchief causes Othello to murder his wife Desdemona and then himself.
For me, a handkerchief is the very symbol of gentlemanly grace and adaptive masculinity that I associate with my own father. Countless times in my life I have witnessed him reaching into his pocket for the clean, neatly folded handkerchief he always carries. When I was twelve, it became my job to iron them. Usually, on the occasions the handkerchief emerged, it was to staunch the blood or tears of someone who had bumped up against one of the harder edges of Life. In childhood, I saw it dabbed on all our skinned knees that had abandoned bicycles in mid-flight, and for any of the many little leaks he sprung working on the fences around the farm. He would come in for lunch with a finger or two wrapped in white, a slowly spreading red circle in the middle. “Fence bit me,” he’d mutter disgustedly. He was always “springing a leak” he would say and needed a constant supply of these tiny tourniquets in the field. Whether we were leaking from our eyes or from our knees, that handkerchief was there—an instantly-produced symbol of organized Calm, the ability to absorb Whatever Happens and Make It Better. Is there anything more Heroic and Masculine than that?
Two bright-eyed little girls stand by my table as I sew. They have accompanied their father on his errands today, to give their mother a break. They are three-years-old and six. The father goes into the dressing room to try on an old suit that he wants updated (i.e. cuffs and pleats removed, legs tapered and hemmed, jacket made tighter and sleeves shortened) in the hopes of riding the fashion train one more stop before he gets off forever. The six year old confides with a roll of her eyes that their family has been invited to TWO birthday parties and a graduation party and it’s Father’s Day this weekend. “I just don’t know how I am going to cope with it all!” she says dramatically, in a way that tells me she is mimicking some Older Female she knows.
“Are you doing anything special for your Daddy on Father’s day?” I want to know. The little one nods emphatically, then looks to the older one for confirmation and further details. The older one just shrugs. “I don’t know what to do,” she says blithely.
“Well,” I say, trying to be helpful, “What does your daddy like?”
“Wock and Woll” pipes up the little one.
“Can you learn one of the songs he likes and sing it to him?” I ask.
They shake their heads. That’s too hard. Besides, where are they going to find a decent cover band, on their budget, at this late stage of the game? They only have a few days left. They look at each other like I am crazy.
“Could you sing him a different song? What songs do you know?” I ask. I am really pushing the music thing here, which they dismiss again.
“No, Daddy does not need more songs.” We wrack our brains some more.
“Is there a special treat you could make him to eat?” I ask. “Some daddys like to get the newspaper and some breakfast in bed on Father’s Day. Would your daddy like that?”
Suddenly they brighten. “We have SO much Bread!” shrieks the little one, as if she has just discovered Plutonium.
“Yes,” decides the six-year-old thoughtfully, “we Could give him bread to eat. And butter. We could put some butter on the bread and give him bread and butter for breakfast.” Then she cups her hands closely around her mouth and whispers in a stage whisper loud enough to cause a breeze to flutter the dresses hanging nearby, “But IT HAS TO BE A SECRET! HE MUST NOT FIND OUT!!!” They put their fingers over their lips and they look as though they are water balloons swelling up, ready to pop. Their eyes are glowing jewels. They can’t wait for it to be Father’s Day now.
“Maybe you could draw him a picture, or make a little card, to go with the bread and butter,” I add, going too far, as I always do. They deflate a little. Why do I keep suggesting all these things that feel like Work?
“Naw…” says the older one. “Bread and butter is good. He doesn’t need more STUFF.” She acts like she works for Marie Kondo, seeking to eliminate unnecessary clutter from his life.
“Ok,” I say, trying again, “How about a drink. Does he get anything to wash down the bread and butter? Some coffee maybe? Or tea?”
“We can’t make coffee,” says the little one, sadly. “We aren’t allowed to touch it because it is so hot.” Then she beams. A new thought has landed under all those pretty curls. “We can give him water! We know how to make water.”
“Yes,” says his authoritative eldest daughter. “He’ll get bread and butter and water.”
Suddenly, I cannot stop giggling. Something about her definitive Decree makes me think she is talking about a prisoner on ward five, not the man saving for her college tuition.
“Do you like your father?” I ask. They both hop like little frogs. They LOVE their daddy. Oh, SO Much—not quite enough to go to all the trouble of saying it with Crayola, music or markers—but with immense joy none-the-less. “What’s the best thing about your daddy?” I want to know. The little one’s answer melts me to tears:
“He just bees with us. That’s all.” That’s ALL indeed. He just bees. BE in present tense—“Someone is going to have to straighten her out,” says Prudence, desperate to correct that charming habit children have of regularizing irregular verbs. I refuse to correct her. I dab at my eyes and smile at these children who spell Love as T-I-M-E.
Their father emerges from his fitting in the dressing room looking harried and sweaty. It’s hot in the shop today. He comes to stand by the girls. He smiles fondly and asks them if they have been behaving. They begin bouncing again as they each take one of his hands.
I think about them for the rest of the day. Mothers have to do so much to be “good” mothers. To be a great dad, really all one has to do is BE there, really there, with your kids. Some men find this easy and they do a whole lot of other great stuff as well. Some men find it difficult to show up at all—sometimes just Being There is still too much. I feel sad for these men and all they miss. I feel sad for their children who miss them.
Later, when I get to that father’s suit, sure enough… inside the left breast pocket, tucked away neatly is a clean white handkerchief. I smile. If his little girls forget to bring him a napkin with his bread and butter and water feast, he’ll be all set. With that square twelve inches of cloth, he’s ready for anything Fatherhood can throw at him.
I feel incredibly lucky to have a father who has Been There so much for me in my life. I feel blessed that my children have a wonderful father who adores them and has never failed to support them to the best of his ability. To all the men who do such an amazing job of Being There for their children, other people’s children, the mothers of their children… I say Thank You. I will make, mend, or iron your handkerchiefs any time!
With so much love & gratitude, I wish you all the Happiest of Father’s Days and all the Bread and Butter and Water you can handle.