One of the many exercises I give my students is the juxtaposition of an emotion and an object: Regret in terms of a shiny black shoe; Anger in terms of a pink blouse. It’s a way to get at the emotion of a scene without being too on the nose. Telling it slant. I think the following is the phrase I pulled from random pieces of paper I passed around. Yes, the teacher does the exercises, too.
LOVE IN TERMS OF A HANDKERCHIEF
My father reaches into his pocket and hands me his white handkerchief. It is neatly folded, half, then half again, then one more time so it is a 3×3 square. He hasn’t used it. Putting a handkerchief in his pocket was part of how he got dressed in the morning, one of the final things he put in his pocket before he went out the door.
I wonder if his mother or father told 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.” Perhaps it was a habit born out of necessity. No Kleenex. Instead, people had cotton squares, folded in the man’s pocket or tucked in a woman’s sleeve.
He gave me the handkerchief because I was crying. I don’t remember why I was crying at that particular moment. What I do remember was the instant I started crying, my father reached in his pocket and handed me his neatly folded handkerchief. I sobbed into the soft white square. Tears. Snot. Mascara. When I handed it back to him, he looked at it like, “Ick.” I think I giggled at the preposterousness of my father carrying around a snot-smeared handkerchief. Then life went on. 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.
I gripped one of his handkerchiefs at his funeral. When we divided up his things, I took the small stack of handkerchiefs from the top drawer of his bureau and put it in mine. In case someone needs that soft white square.