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.

The ideal souvenir: evocative, a little frivolous, but not useless

Is a souvenir always a mass produced tchotchke made in China, probably being sold by a franchised gift shop sending its profits out of the community?

That’s common today, but it’s not the only form a memento can take.

Should I bring anything tangible home from my travels, or are memories sufficient?

I don’t have to; I don’t always!

Nevertheless, a well-chosen souvenir can whisk me from daily life back to vacation bliss in an instant, for an instant, if it’s something I wear or use.

Bring a piece of your travels home with you

The ideal souvenir for me is very probably different than yours. That’s okay—great, actually! I’m always ready to advocate for people to assess their own needs and wants and try to ignore cultural noise arguing for random consumption without self-reflection.

Know thyself, and consume accordingly.

I’m not a minimalist, however. I admire austere spaces with their stark beauty, but I revel in a home built up with layer after layer of color, texture, and conversation-provoking oddities around every corner.

I do strive to purge what I don’t need or love, but my heart is large and my love knows few bounds. My tolerance for stuff is high, so long as the resultant collection reads “joyful exuberance.”

But I travel often, and usually with my kids.

If you’ve ever been to a store with children, you’ve probably observed their magpie like attraction to anything for sale.

In a kitchen store, they want tongs for squeezing a sibling’s ear from across the room. In a pharmacy, requests roll in for pill boxes with bright colors or a folding cane because… how cool is that? You can pretend to be infirm, and then hit your sibling from even farther across the room!

My kids have lots of nice stuff, but I’m not a parent who regularly gives in to this kind of begging. We don’t impulse buy toys. If we like something, we make a note, go home to consider it, and return to make a purchase. I’m trying to help them ignore the modern siren call of instant gratification.

From their toddlerhood, I’ve made and enforced strict rules about how one behaves in stores. This includes the rule that we will abandon a shopping trip, immediately, if behavior crosses a line that negatively impacts others, no matter how inconvenient to me and my agenda. Asking once is allowed; begging is against the rules.

Still, they will sidle up and ask—usually politely, often bubbling with enthusiasm—at every shopping opportunity. Souvenir shops are places I try to avoid.

Souvenirs for the kids

My approach to family souvenirs is to find something that we can enjoy now (during the trip) and continue to use at home. In Hilton Head, we bought a folding kite to fly on the wind-swept beach. Now, the kite lives in our beach bag.

Travel board games or small toys that meet my usual criteria for quality have been picked up on other vacations. Ideally, it will be something tied in to the location we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s enough to recall a trip when we take out a game to play:

“Remember, we got this on that rainy day in Seattle. We played in the hotel lobby by the fireplace and ordered the pizza with the spicy sauce…”

Even a Lego set or mass produced kit can evoke a special place or time. The Lego Space Needle set was purchased at… Seattle’s landmark building, the Space Needle. A Lego set with a camper was bought, and built, during our stay at a rustic fishing cabin.

More often than I would expect, my kids remember clearly when and where a toy came from. Taking this approach has worked pretty well for me thus far.

It’s not a given that a new toy will show up on a trip, but it isn’t out of the question if a rainy day or a need for quiet time presents itself in combination with a fascinating kit or object.

Souvenirs for myself

If I’m strictly honest, I’ll admit to the occasional toy bought for Mommy, too. We might have picked up another modular building to add to our family Lego display during our recent road trip. It’s entirely possible that I assembled a Parisian Restaurant as soon as the vacation laundry was done.

Lego Parisian Restaurant - 1

Much more often, I’m looking to avoid extra stuff to carry home from a trip. Usually, I acquire an inch or more of paper memories. Brochures, maps, and books are weaknesses I won’t deny. But, unless we’re on a road trip and there’s lots of room to store things in the back, I find shopping bags and bulky souvenirs stressful.

I plan what I carry on a trip. It feels wrong—even dangerous—to add items willy-nilly whilst en route.

My most successful strategy has been to purchase accessories as souvenirs, or, less often, items of clothing. These are things I can wear (i.e., use), and, when I do, I’m reminded of where they came from. It’s like a self-powered generator for joy.

A linen scarf, sewn by a bearded man

linen scarf from Ohio - 1Wear the scarf? Now my neck is warm, my outfit is complete, and my heart recalls a wonderful shop run by two bearded brothers who don’t offer wi-fi but do offer a hand-crafted, multi-level indoor tree fort in the back of their cafe to entertain the kids.

The Well Lancaster OH - 1

Lancaster, Ohio eatery, The Well

The brother with the shorter beard? He made the linen scarf himself. Oh yeah, and they serve a kale salad that my children agreed tasted good!

I think those guys are wizards…

A purple leather bag proudly bearing Roots Canada’s beaver logo

My purple handbag? Made in Canada, near the urban Toronto Roots location where I purchased it. I only own two nice leather bags. I’m not a purse junkie. This one, however, was the perfect dark purple color, just the right size, and had exactly the arrangement of pockets I’d been looking for.

I saw it in the window as I wandered around Toronto’s snazzy shopping district, finding my way to a theatre for a matinee. I paused. I yearned. I went to my show, but came back and entered the shop before returning to my hotel.

It felt like fate. My memory of the acquisition plays in my mind like a slow motion falling-in-love montage from a sappy film.

I’ve never regretted buying this bag.

I don’t shop recreationally in my everyday life, so purchases like these become vivid memories. The tangible results? They’re wearable triggers to enjoy them again.

If I find myself stopping by Target for clean socks while traveling, that’s a failure. I’ll need to plan better next time.

But, coming home with an accessory, or a hand-knit sweater, preferably locally made?

That’s my ideal souvenir.

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.

For the love of living history

My husband claims that I want to live in the past, but I don’t think that is the reason for my passionate love of all sorts of living history experiences. I am the first to admit that I require a hot shower every day to be truly happy, and my physical laziness alone marks me as a modern person.

OSV mill

Water powered mill at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA

It is fair to say I tend toward escapist fantasies, so it could be that simple.

Of course, I think it is more complicated than that.

I think my yearning for the past expresses a real understanding on my part that human beings need to experience tangible human creation on a regular basis to maintain a spiritual connection to our aggregate humanity. Quite simply, we are starving for the unique in our mechanized modern world, not because novelty is titillating, but because humankind’s creative efforts are what feed our souls.

Every teenager recognizes his need to be “different” (i.e., special, unique), and we write it off as a selfish phase. We age into our suburban sameness as our energy dissipates and all of our passions disperse into more moderate pursuits. But take a moment to reflect upon nature, where every snowflake, every tree, every blade of grass is different from its fellows. This is the clay from which we are made, and we, too, are unique in form and in spirit.OSV 2 yellow flowers

I believe that what I yearn for is a lifestyle in which a preponderance of what I experience bears some stamp of a human maker. Let the mass-produced, soulless object be the curiosity. We may find, then, that our ennui is eased. Slowing production of many things to a human scale would certainly ease resource burdens on our little planet, though some will rail against the reduction of consumption as an economic killer.

Whether this reflects God’s creation or nature’s design, I suspect there is power in it. I’ve started with small steps by creating wearable art in my hand-dyed silks, and by sewing a few small items of clothing for my children. I dream of acquiring the skill to turn silk that I dye into gowns to drape the human form in loveliness and comfort.

SCA medieval lady

Medieval SCA garb, hand-sewn but crude

I think this is why I love living history. It isn’t about what really was, but about a life where routine acts are creative, in the most literal sense of crafting that which will be consumed.

I thank God every day for running water, central heating, and always having more than enough food for my growing children, but being grateful for what I have doesn’t stop me from working toward what I hope can be an even more abundant future. Perhaps that abundance will be spiritual, and, in fact, reflect a lower level of consumption.

Originally posted May 8, 2011 via iWeb