I have always used tissues. My perception, reinforced by my training in infectious diseases, is that they are more “hygienic” than handkerchiefs. Moreover, tissues do not need to be ironed – a “job” I had as a youngster (i.e., ironing my father’s handkerchiefs). But, times change and I have learned that there is more to handkerchiefs than I ever realized.
When I was an intern at Cook County Hospital and on the women’s ward rotation, one of my most memorable patients was an Afro-American woman who was admitted with a pulsating abdominal mass, which sadly turned out to be inoperable stomach cancer (adherent to her abdominal aorta). She crocheted beautiful lace-trimmed handkerchiefs – and I encouraged her to do so and teach her “ward-mates” to do likewise. I admired the handkerchiefs greatly – but not as much as I admired this woman who raised a fine family of sons in the poverty of a Chicago slum. We discharged her on “vitamins” because in those days there was no discussion of Cancer – with the patient, that is. Months later, as I was making rounds on the ward, two well-dressed young men came with a small package. They were her sons with whom she had entrusted two handkerchiefs to give to me when she died. I have kept them to this day, 47 years later, a cherished memento of a time long ago when a handkerchief was more than an alternative to a tissue.
Ironically, about one month ago, I received two hand-crocheted handkerchiefs from a visitor from church. She had inherited several of these from a relative and wished to share them with others. How could she know what an appreciative audience she had reached? I know that handkerchiefs will always be special – to me and, hopefully, to those with whom I too will share them.