Thursday, October 29, 2009

Old Ladies

I'm not thinking of ladies who are old so much as I am thinking about ladies from older times, times that were perhaps slower and gentler, more delicate, perhaps even more refined. Or maybe just more down to earth and simple.

When I was poking around at the second hand store the other day I came upon a clear plastic bag of handkerchiefs. I wanted to pull the staples out so I could have a closer look. I wanted to see if they were worth the 90-cent price tag, but if the staples are removed and the bags are open, they won't sell them until after they've gone to the back to be reprocessed. So I poked through the clearness of the bag and, with my daughter encouraging me, decided to hand over the 90 cents and call them mine. There were about 24 hankies of varying ages and used-ness. Some were faded, some nearly threadbare. Two, crisp and bright with labels attacheed, were folded as if they'd just come out of the gift box. Some were from the 1940s and '50s. Others were a little newer and one was, I think, much older - white embroidery on white linen. There was also a new linen one with its label shiny label just waiting for it's own monogram in the corner and tatting around the edge. I decided the bag was a good buy.

What is it about these little pieces of cloth that make them so dear? Certainly not their intended use in handling the sniffles and runny nose of a cold. Possibly for the charming prints that cover their surfaces, or the delicate tatting or crochet around their borders. Probably the real appeal is that they bring to mind ladies I love from a time long past. Didn't they always carry a handkerchief in their purses or pockets? I think my Gramma Meinzen did and so did my mom.

As a child I remember sometimes choosing handkerchiefs as Christmas gifts for my mom and gramma. Do you remember how ladies' handkerchiefs were always larger than their flat square boxes and were folded to fit? There were 4 folds arranged in such a way that the hankie looked like a smaller version of itself and the geometry of the decorations was preserved. Sometimes the hankies were sold in sets of three or four to a box, all with the same print but in different colors, or sometimes the set was made up of a different flower or motif embroidered in the corner of each.

Pockets in dresses and aprons (or if there were no pockets in the dress, sometimes the hankies were tucked under a sleeve or under a bra strap at the shoulder) were always at the ready. My Gramma Meinzen is the lady on the left. Notice her nice big pocket. You can be sure there was a hankie in it.

Hankies were useful for another purpose: I learned to manage an iron on hankies and my dad's boxer shorts. Hankies required the most care because there were to be no ironed-in creases or wrinkles. I started ironing before I started school. I wonder how many hankies I ironed before I perfected the job.

Now, handbags - or purses, or pocketbooks - call them what you will - are a different memory all together. Handbags definitely held a hankie, but there were other great things in pocketbooks: a coin purse; a billfold; a compact with a mirror and powder puff; probably lipstick; keys; maybe a pen and a small pad of paper.... It's not like I spent time looking through Gramma's bag, but occasionally, and probably to keep me occupied and quiet during a car ride or some other wait, she would open her purse and pull out things for me to look at. What a treat! I enjoyed the contents of her purse, but I often liked the purses themselves. Sometimes I would go so far as to ask her if I could have one or other particular ones when she was finished with them. I remember only once did she pass one on to me. It was large and black and heavy - I was small. It seemed more like a suitcase than a handbag. Gosh, the things I could pack into it! How I could play "grown-up"! I loved playing with it no matter that it was over-large for me.

Treasures. My grandmother's handkerchief and purse would be treasures if I had them, but since I don't have them, the memories are treasures enough. What treasures do you have or remember from an "old lady" you loved when you were a child?

By the way, the ladies in the photo above, from left to right, are sisters Emma Bickerstaff Meinzen, Cora Bickerstaff, and Mary Ellen "Mayme" Bickerstaff Morris. The photo was taken about 1953. That year, Gramma turned 60; Cora, 42; and Mayme, 54.

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