Gifts from the past

My mother visited a friend’s garage sale, and she sent me some little gifts plucked from the past.

There were several brand new linen handkerchiefs, including original department store gift packaging from the 1950’s. Her other find for me was an envelope with four Esterbrook pen nibs from a shop in North Platte, Nebraska, where our friend grew up.

Last year, Mom gifted me with a collection of hand-embroidered towels her mother had made and used in their home. Mom prefers non-iron terry cloth towels that match her bathrooms, and she knows that I love antique linens. During this minor downsizing, I also received the bulk of her linen and cotton hankies. They had been gathering dust in the bottom drawer of her vanity since I was young.

My father carries a neatly ironed and folded white cotton handkerchief every day, and I see it as one mark of a gentleman. Mom switched to the arguably more hygienic and decidedly less labor intensive option of a pocket pack of Kleenex before I was self-aware enough to notice. Her hankies and small collection of silk scarves only saw use in my dress-up play.

Because I’m a ridiculous packrat who also thrills to the textures of the past, I carry a packet of Kleenex for the yucky stuff and also an Irish linen handkerchief, generally poorly ironed, if at all, but trimmed with handmade lace. The latter gets pressed into service when ladylike tears threaten on schedule (weddings and theatrical productions) or eyeglasses want polishing.

The hankies from Mom’s friend included birthday cards she and her brother wrote to their grandmother as children. Don’t worry, the cards had been opened and no doubt appreciated, but their grandmother probably used sensible cotton handkerchiefs every day and saved these colorful linen confections for “a special occasion.”

Well, I, myself, have already laundered them. I plan to use them any day on which they appeal to me.

I spent my childhood wondering why my mother didn’t use the elaborately embroidered works of art her own mother had saved from her own wedding. I won’t make what I see as the same mistake.

Every day is a special occasion in my house. We can wear our finest garments, use our best china, and dry our hands on embroidered linen as we wish. Life’s pleasures are greater when we attend to our work using things that were lovingly crafted by human hands! I try to take every opportunity to do so.

In this way, mundane acts can become prayers of gratitude. At least, they do for me.

As for the nibs, some of you may wonder what they even are. The nib is the part of a pen that actually touches the paper. These are replaceable parts from old-fashioned, refillable pens, which were the norm before the advent of cheap, disposable ball points.

I collect writing implements, including fountain pens. My mother saw these and thought they might relate, somehow, to my hobby.

Esterbrook Pens, makers of the nibs unearthed in our friends’ old desk, has a website. I may just write to them and see if they can tell me when these nibs were made and sold. A quick browse unearthed a few digitized charts of Esterbrook’s nib offerings from my best guess as to their era, but no immediate answers to my mystery have presented themselves.

Contrary to my mother’s high opinion of my general knowledge, I don’t really know much about fountain pens. I own about a dozen. A few were moderately expensive. Most just delighted me with their aesthetics.

I have learned, by writing with many, that I prefer a fine nib and a fairly lightweight and narrow bodied pen. I get annoyed when a pen is too short.

My ink has to flow smoothly, but, if it does, I’m more concerned about its color after drying than any other behavioral quirk.*

Odds are, I won’t find a practical use for the nibs, but it’s easy to appreciate the gift. My mother was thinking of me. She sent me something that resonates with my favorite part of myself—the writer who cherishes carefully made objects that endure.

I’ll endeavor to make my gratitude so persistent.

*Drying time and permanence might be other considerations.

Hand-embroidered linens: a celebration of the unique gifts of mothers

I’ve got something you don’t have!

I say this gleefully, hand to mouth to hide my smile. But my treasure isn’t valuable in a monetary sense. Instead, I’m celebrating the absolutely unique nature of a collection of linens—primarily kitchen and tea towels—that my mother just sent. Most of them were hand-embroidered by the grandmother I never knew.

 

Linen hand towel wreath

Genuine linen. Not even ironed! In the guest bath!

My maternal grandmother died when I was a baby. I met her, but I was too young to be aware of it. I’ve always hoped that she was glad to meet me—her first grandchild—before she passed away.

My mother has pack-rat tendencies, though her house is immaculate and very well organized. She has more bedding than she could wear out in a lifetime. She keeps everything, just in case she needs it someday. While her attempts, thus far, at “down sizing” strike me as beginning the process of moving a mountain by picking up a pair of tweezers, she is taking steps to clarify things family members might want “someday” and she has gone so far as to gift items even she admits she’s unlikely to use. Grandmother’s linens fall into this category and arrived UPS in a medium size box.

Mom’s perfectionism meant a certain lack of freedom of expression during my childhood. I was involved in the decision to buy coordinating bedding sets for my bedroom, say, but under no circumstances could I have used pillow covers atop my bed that didn’t match the theme exactly. Some of Mom’s standards are pretty rigid. We did get to enjoy hiding our preferred, sometimes whimsical sheets out of sight beneath the spread. I used a particular set of Sesame Street sheets right up through my college dorm.

Other favorites of mine, once I was old enough to pick them out on sheet-changing day and tall enough to see them tucked away in the least used corner of the linen closet, were an array of delicately embroidered white cotton pillowcases that didn’t have matching sheets. Mom would let me use them with plain white sheets, which were close enough. (Sigh). My grandmother embroidered some of these, and some of them were wedding gifts to my grandmother from women she had known growing up. They were deemed too nice to use, I think, and so they waited in one closet, and then another.

I loved them, and I wheedled, and I used them. My mother didn’t mind too much. She did complain that they required more ironing than her preferred poly-cotton blends, but no bed sheet ever makes it into service without pressing in her house. No-iron means “easier to iron” in Mom’s lexicon. For all her compulsions, my loving mother has always tried to make her children happy, though she might grumble about some of what that takes.

As a teen, I dyed my hair the occasional interesting color, and I wore it black off and on. I ruined my very favorite embroidered pillowcase by sleeping on it one night after a dye job. I was really sad. Mom was somewhat cross. Then, we both got over it. I learned two lessons that day: first, to be more careful with wet hair that’s been dyed black, but, more importantly, that those wonderful things we want to save for a more important day are still better used and enjoyed than kept “safe” in a pristine prison. If we won’t use them, why have them?

Which brings me back to my new, old tea towels. Mom didn’t use those because they didn’t match her kitchen. Mom’s towels always match her kitchen, including the adjusted color schemes of her seasonal décor. Also, some of them have spots. Or stains. They aren’t perfect enough for my mother’s kitchen.

But I think she kept them all these years because they remind her of her mother.

Tea towels days of week

Racist embroidery depicts a stereotypical Chinese servant. It also likely reflects attitudes during my grandmother’s upbringing in early 20th c. California.

They must bring back memories of all the tuna-and-egg salad sandwiches made for a little girl’s lunch by loving hands. Perhaps even the stains convey nostalgia for a woman, my mother tells me, who was not a perfectionist, and shook her head over a little girl growing up already rigidly wedded to the notion of perfect matching sets and an immaculately made bed. I seem to be a little bit more like my grandmother, in this respect.

So I unpacked the box and unfolded towel after towel, napkin after tablecloth. They don’t match my kitchen. Some of them have stains. Their delicate embroidery may not hold up to my take-no-prisoners approach to washing kitchen towels.

I use them every day. I cherish every singular stitch. And every time I dry my hands, I think about the grandmother I never knew, and I’m grateful for the mother that I have.