Cumberland Times-News

September 22, 2012

It’s another trick that she had up her sleeve

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Back in the 1930s, in the house I grew up in, there was a small table in the foyer at the bottom of the steps. We called it the console table, and it held an electric lamp on a doily, with enough room left to collect outgoing or incoming mail. (Which, by the way, got delivered twice a day, Monday through Saturday.)

Even more important, it contained a rather large drawer. A drawer that, if you can get your minds around this, was filled with — handkerchiefs! Five piles of them, to be exact. Big piles. One each for my father, my mother, my two brothers, and myself. Handkerchiefs that you replaced every day, unless you had a cold in which case, they were renewed as needed. My mother faithfully washed them all every week in her wringer washer and ironed them by the dozens , along with the rest of our clothes and linens. (The only tissues known to man in those days were in the bathroom — and even they were not known to all men.)

I had not thought of that drawer for years, and probably never would have again except for an incident a few weeks ago, which reminded me of those good old days — when proper sanitary practice during colds consisted of carrying handkerchiefs around with you until they were, well, used up — and then you put them in the wash.

What happened was that, after a choral society concert, we were packing up to leave, and a good friend, but very young, came chortling back to tell us that, guess what, so-and-so had needed to wipe her nose and had pulled a tissue out from where she had stashed it — her sleeve! (The implication was — horrors!)

“What? You mean, like this?” I said, pulling a tissue out of my own sleeve. The look on her face brought home the fact that different generations grow up with different approaches to everything, and nothing will change that.

She was genuinely shocked to see that I too engaged in the unsanitary practice of carrying around on my person a somewhat less than pristine tissue for awhile. (Until I got to the nearest waste basket.) Which leads me to consider for a moment the various ways different generations deal with storing their germs.

Handkerchiefs are probably the most ancient, time-honored method of dealing with nasal overkill, unless some finicky cavepersons managed to find a few soft leaves somewhere to sop up the excess. And you couldn’t possibly throw away every stained handkerchief! Why, some of them were beautifully embroidered for hours by loved ones who rather gathered that they would look good under disgusting circumstances. So you had to carry them around with you until they could be recycled. Most of us tucked them into our sleeves, some a little more intimately. But I can tell you one thing: unsanitary as it seems to be, carrying your nasal debris round with you for an hour or two in a handkerchief or a tissue doesn’t strike me as nearly so revolting as sneezing into your sleeve or the neck of your shirt, as well-brought up children are instructed to do nowadays.

I can tell you one thing — before I ever take a child by the arm nowadays (always for kindly reasons, of course, unless they’re my grandsons), I am careful to aim for high up on the shoulder or way down on the wrist. Even that seems risky, since after being used repeatedly for a few hours, that sneeze zone probably spreads considerably from the original inner elbow area. At least back in the old days we didn’t wear our sneezes around for the rest of the day!

The more I think of it, the more I suspect that our old way of confining sneezes to cloth handkerchiefs which were then put in the hamper was a cleaner technique than today’s more enlightened one of sneezing into your clothes. If you’re under 30, I suspect you won’t agree with me, but I choose it any time over being dressed in multiple sneezes until I get ready for bed.

Which reminds me of something mostly unrelated but still true: you know what? I haven’t ironed anything in 20 years — and I kind of miss it!

Back when the family was home I had a strict schedule: every Monday I did the wash. Every Tuesday I did the ironing. On Wednesdays I cleaned the first floor. On Thursdays I cleaned the second floor. On Fridays MHTB and I went for a ride in the car together and got reacquainted.

You know, those Tuesdays weren’t all that bad. (Not as good as Friday, not as bad as Wednesday and Thursday.) I am not a housecleaner by nature, so I have never missed that, but gently smoothing over things, well, you know, there’s a lot to be said for it. Cold days and a warm iron (Forget wrinkles in the summer!) — and the magic of seeing flat, even contours take over a crazy quilt of wrinkles — and don’t forget how it all ends up, piles of squeaky clean handkerchiefs enclosed in cocoons of warmth — there’s much to be said for ironing.

Yes, I miss it. And handkerchiefs too!

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.