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'What's a hanky for?'

The author's handkerchief collection. (Photo by Linda Grover)

During this end-of-the-school-year season, we relatives and friends of students have the pleasure of attending many enjoyable concerts, programs and graduations. I have watched and listened to little children singing and older kids playing musical instruments; a granddaughter was promoted from middle to high school; a happy grandson graduated from Denfeld where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, among other relatives, graduated.

As he walked across the stage to receive his diploma I held a handkerchief in my hand, ready to dab at my eyes if I needed to. As it turned out I didn't. Clear-eyed and proud, I watched him walk across the same stage as I did when I, too, was a 17-year-old graduating senior.

Although I didn't use it at Denfeld graduation, a handkerchief is a useful thing to have and I usually keep a couple folded in my purse. You never know when it will come in handy.

At the St. James School spring band concert/piano recital, one of my elementary-age nieces came to sit next to me. She listened carefully and politely to the music. I thought, "Such lovely manners; she is certainly growing into a young lady." In my unzipped purse, at the top of the jumble inside, were two folded, ironed handkerchiefs. I offered one to my niece. "Would you like a hanky?" I whispered.

"Thank you," she whispered back and looked at the piece of folded floral fabric. "It's pretty." She unfolded the handkerchief, looked at the pink roses in each corner, folded it back into a triangle shape. "What's a hanky for?"

"Well, you can wipe your nose with it, instead of Kleenex; if you splash a little of your milk while you are eating you can soak it up; if you get food on your face you can wipe it off ... "

"It's like a reusable napkin!" she whispered brightly.

My husband turned to see what we were doing. My niece dabbed the hanky on her upper lip and smiled sweetly at him. Then, conscious that she must be a good example and role model for her auntie and uncle, she turned her attention again to the concert.

I don't know how many people still carry a handkerchief. I have two or three dozen, some that I use every day, some that are too good to use and some that I keep for gifts. When I got home after the concert I took the too-good and for-gifts hankies out of the shoebox I keep them in and laid them out on the kitchen table. Those hankies bring to my mind my mother and aunts and female relatives from when I was a little girl, those ladies long gone from this earth.

When I was a little girl it seemed that every woman carried a handkerchief: in their purses or pockets, tucked into their sleeves, fan-folded and pinned to the bosom, flat-folded at the waist over a belt. Most of the women I knew carried decorated handkerchiefs, even for everyday use. Some hankies were lace-edged and some with flowers or monograms embroidered in the corners. Some were printed with designs of flowers, leaves, kittens, dogs.

My sixth-grade teacher used to have surprise inspections: "Do you have a handkerchief in your desk?" I learned to stay ahead of by keeping a couple of my dad's plain white ones in the back corner of my desk. My mother's pretty hankies were too nice for the darkness behind my textbooks and pencils.

Like the mothers of other kids, mine used to knot my milk money into the corner of a hanky. At school the teachers untied each child's knotted hanky, counted and recorded the coins and handed the handkerchief back. And like other mothers, mine, when we were out and about and our faces became smeared or dirty, would whip that hanky from her purse/pocket/sleeve, say "Stick out your tongue," dab the hanky on our tongues and wipe that smudge or bit of food right off.

What's a hanky for? Noses, hands, faces. Spills. Milk money. Decoration. Gifts. Memories.

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Email her at