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.
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.
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.