Scott Turow is a lawyer and author. His latest novel, “The Last Trial,” is scheduled for publication in May.
The text from my son said it all: “Dad, there’s an article you were born to write that the world is finally ready for: Bring Back the Handkerchief!”
As my son knows, there’s no “bring back” for me. For me, the handkerchief never left.
My mother raised me with several fixed rules. One was that a gentleman always has a clean handkerchief in his right rear pocket, a piece of simple cotton, roughly 15 inches square and less than four inches when folded. I was a dutiful son, but I can recall being a 10-year-old on the school playground, feeling the padding directly over my butt and wondering what it was there for. Time would tell.
Every night for most of my life, I have removed from my trousers the items I’m going to need the next day — keys, wallet and hankie, if it’s still unused. After 60 years, I am like the “Princess and the Pea.” My body weight feels wrong if I’m heading out of the house with an empty back pocket.
I am sure this habit has sometimes struck friends and colleagues who’ve noticed it as a little quaint, but in polite company nobody comments on somebody else’s trivial eccentricities. That rule of behavior, of course, did not apply to one’s children in the late 20th century. When my three kids were growing up, they all let me know whenever they could that my hankie was as ridiculously old-fashioned as a top-hat and a walking stick. They had their arguments. If you have to be prepared every day for allergies or a cold, why not tote a little packet of tissues, which at least saves you from that disgusting business of blowing your nose in the thing and then stuffing it back in your pants?
Point taken — especially in the time of covid-19 — but a cotton handkerchief is a lot more durable than tissue, creates no waste and has a far wider variety of uses. One reason my kids saw that handkerchief so often is because of the epic number of chocolate mouths, skinned knees and drippy noses that hankie wiped through their younger days. Can you grab the handle of a pot that’s boiling over with a Kleenex?
Now that I am a grandfather of five, my hankie again has been getting a workout. When friends become grandfathers for the first time, I often send them a dozen handkerchiefs as a small gift. “Hold on to these,” I say, “you’re going to need them.” In fact, for Father’s Day last year my wife gave me several new handkerchiefs, embroidered with my grandpa name, “Pops.”
Her gift was a tacit admission. From her subsequent comments, I take it that the first time that handkerchief came out, right after we started dating, she thought to herself something like, “Holy smokes, what a geezer!” But by now, neither of us can count the number of times her eyes have welled up at a movie, a tickle won’t leave her throat in the theater, or, as happens, she’s needed to blow her nose and timidly whispered, “Can I borrow your handkerchief?”
Yet no matter how well my mother’s advice has served me or my family, not even Mom could have anticipated the hankie’s new role as an Essential Public Health Appliance. All of us have learned how hard it is to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice in this coronavirus-plagued era about not touching your face. Here is an answer. Got an itch in your eye or your nose that you just have to scratch? Facing those frequently touched places such as elevator buttons and door handles that seem full of peril? Use your hankie, dude!
Here let me add a sober note on best practices: Touching your face with a coronavirus-infested hankie is not much better than a dirty hand. The solution is to carry multiple hankies in different pockets. And of course, if you used a handkerchief for virus protection, wash it thoroughly with soap and hot water as soon as you can.
That said, your handkerchief can be even more useful in protecting others from you, especially if you are one of those asymptomatic coronavirus carriers. Last weekend, the CDC recommended wearing masks when we’re out of the house. Guess what can be turned into a DIY mask by folding several times and applying two rubber bands six inches apart? In a pinch, and if you have no rubber bands, your handkerchief can become a makeshift bandanna that can be pulled over your lower face like a robber entering a bank.
So my son has it right: Bring back the pocket handkerchief. It may actually save a few lives. And it will certainly give me the chance to channel my mother, to lift my chin and look at my adult children through one eye, asking in her good-hearted way, “What do you have to say now, smarty-pants?”