Years ago, when I was still working in professional theatre, I managed a tour of a show about the life of an Appalachian woman. The tour spent a week in Birmingham and I arranged tickets for my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law. As a surprise, I got a seat with the family so that we could watch the performance together.
At one particularly moving moment in the play I heard my mother begin to sniffle. Without fanfare my dad quietly removed a handkerchief from the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket and slipped it to my mother. Seconds later my sister-in-law began to tear up and my dad once again reached into the same pocket, produced another cloth handkerchief, and passed it to her.
My sister-in-law seemed duly impressed and so was I. I knew my dad always carried a handkerchief but his preparedness for a two-hankie moment was the sign of a true gentleman. I made a mental note to always have a couple of handkerchiefs on stand-by in my breast pockets whenever I wear a dress jacket.
A few years ago, while giving a final exam in early December, one of my students was sniffing and snorting and coughing and had come unprepared with anything to control her malady. I quietly stepped over to her desk and offered her a clean handkerchief from my suit jacket.
She looked at me as if something indecent was occurring. “What is that?” she demanded.
“It’s a clean handkerchief. You sound like you need it,” I said quietly.
Her eyes rolled and she said, “I don’t think so,” and continued to work on her test. When she turned the paper in, I was frankly a little hesitant to handle it knowing the number of germs that had been spewed over it.
I thought that particular student’s reaction was odd until a few semesters later when, during a lecture, a student was suffering with a distracting runny nose and sneezing. I pulled out a clean handkerchief and asked him if he would like to take it. He turned me down and – since it was a lecture and not a test – I suggested that he might like to go to the restroom for some tissue.
As he left the room I asked the class “What’s the deal with students today and handkerchiefs?”
One student chimed in. “Well, you must admit that it’s pretty weird to lend somebody something to blow their snot in.”
“Oh no no no,” I said. “If somebody offers you a handkerchief, it is not a loan; it is a gift. If I give you my handkerchief I have no intention of taking it back.”
Once again, I felt like a dinosaur as I understood that a common courtesy that I took for granted was completely unknown and misunderstood by my students’ generation. I was heartened a bit in a recent episode of the television series “Aquarius” in which David Duchovny plays a Los Angeles policeman in the 1960s. After delivering bad news to a mother he mutters to a colleague that “there goes another handkerchief” (or words to that effect). I was glad that I was not delusional in my memory that long ago a society existed in which the role of the man’s handkerchief was understood. (Of course the plot of “Aquarius” deals with the fact that Charles Manson also ran free in that long ago society but that’s a topic for another day.)
In our frightened and germophobic contemporary world I am aware of the wariness and warnings about cloth handkerchiefs. Still, blowing one’s nose or coughing discreetly into one’s handkerchief seem safer and more civilized to me than the currently approved “vampire sneeze” of coughing into the crook of one’s arm.
Oh well. The art of the handkerchief seems to have pretty much disappeared (although the recent surge in pocket squares might be a portent of something). But, finally, this is all one needs to know about a proffered handkerchief: If you take it, it’s yours.
Please don’t offer to give it back.