When you’re given a prompt like love or longing, it can get a little esoteric. It works to ground the a big topic in a concrete object. It is way to tell something slant.

The Prompt

Love in terms of a handkerchief.

My father reaches into his pocket and hands me his white handkerchief. It doesn’t come out of his sleeve like a hanky from my grandmother. No, it’s neatly folded, half, then half again, then one more time so it is a 3×3 square. He hadn’t used it. Putting a handkerchief his pocket was part of how he got dressed in the morning. Right before he went out the door. Did his mother or father tell him to do it?
“Bill, you should always have a handkerchief with you.”
“Bill, don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve.”
“Bill, sniffing your nose like that is so impolite. Use. Your. Handkerchief. Blow your nose.”
Who knows? I wasn’t there.

Maybe it was a habit born out of necessity. No Kleenex. Instead, they had these linen or fine cotton squares, folded in the man’s pocket or tucked in a woman’s sleeve. Maybe it was another way for the upper class to distinguish themselves from the drooling and sniveling masses, stained with with dried mucus up and down their sleeves. Again, I wasn’t there.

My father gave me the handkerchief because I was crying. I don’t remember why I was crying at this moment. Boyfriend. School. I really don’t remember. I cried a lot as a teenager. And it made my father uncomfortable. But he always he reached in his pocket and handed me his neatly folded handkerchief. I sobbed into it. Tears. Snot. Mascara. Once, I tried to hand it back to him and he looked at it like, “Ick.”

Then life went on. My tears were shed. My snotty nose was wiped. We didn’t talk much about what caused the upset. It was over. It was in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t phobic about feelings. He came girded with the handkerchief and he quietly let me dissolve into it. But he wasn’t keen on parsing out the beginning, middle or end of an upset. Let’s move on, shall we?

I gripped one of his handkerchiefs at his funeral.

I’ve taken to putting his folded cloth squares in my purse before I go anywhere. Just in case. Someone cries. Or sneezes. Or needs that soft white square.