Holding on to my dad
Stephanie White Ferland with one of her dad’s handkerchiefs in Scotland. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
My dad always carried a handkerchief in his back left pocket. He was a southpaw, so that makes sense, I guess. He preferred the traditional red bandanna, but I remember plain white handkerchiefs, and blue bandannas, too. They were laundered, dried on the clothesline, and ironed into a perfect square by my mother, and he carried a clean one every day.
I remember seeing him reach for it when he sneezed, or when a winter cold left his nose running. But my favorite time to see it flutter out from the back pocket of his dungarees was when he was laughing so hard tears would stream down his weathered face. My dad was a quiet man, stoic to the very end. He thought a lot more than he spoke, and he never wasted words. But he had a terrific sense of humor.
His laughter would shake his entire body, making his brown eyes sparkle. The best part of his laugh was that it was usually instigated by his own thought or action. He knew he would be laughing long before anyone else. He loved to do or say little things to wind my mother up. He’d drop little breadcrumbs of seemingly benign commentary, which would inevitably pile up and lead to a very angry and irritated lady of the house. He just couldn’t help himself. His laughter brought me joy, and it was worth waiting for.
Although my father spent nearly 10 hours a day in the forest, often alone, when his handkerchief reached a condition that no longer allowed my mother, in good conscience, to risk it being seen by anyone else, it would be retired. Typically this meant it landed in the dust rag basket under the bathroom sink. Its twilight years would be spent spreading the aerosol Pledge foam over the maple end tables and bookcases in the living room. Occasionally she might tear one down the middle and use half to polish or clean some small object. But these worn handkerchiefs were absolutely never to land in dad’s dresser drawer again. In hindsight I think she probably likened sending him to work with a faded, frayed handkerchief to sending her children out the door with their underwear on backwards. After all, “What if you get in an accident? What will people think?”
By chance one day when I was in my late twenties, I happened to be in the familiar kitchen at my parents’ house. The sun shone through the window onto the blonde wood of the long handmade table as my mother folded laundry. I saw her remove one of my dad’s handkerchiefs from the rotation.
I was puzzled. It looked perfectly fine to me. There were no holes or tears in the fabric, and though it was no longer the vibrant red of a new bandanna, it looked functional. When I asked what the defect was, my mother pointed out the slight fraying along one edge of the fabric. I convinced her to let me have it to carry on hikes. I could tell she was hesitant, that it would go against her well-established routine, but she reluctantly agreed. A new tradition was born.
Every time my dad’s handkerchiefs reached retirement age, I was the grateful recipient. I carried them on every hike from that day forward. It made me happy to have them, knowing they had been his, and also because I liked to imagine all the places I could take them. That first handkerchief was with me and my son when he made his first ascent of Mount Monadnock at age 5. He wore it cowboy style, tied around his neck, and I’d like to think it was the red and white fabric that inspired his little legs to make the climb. But, I suspect both of us would have to admit it was the promise of ice cream at Kimball’s afterward.
Years later, at the age of 65, my dad was diagnosed with stage IV prostate and bone cancer. Life as we knew it spun in directions we didn’t know existed until then. We were faced with a lot of unknowns. The handkerchiefs suddenly became even more precious to me. What I couldn’t have known was that handkerchiefs also held a special place in my dad’s heart, not just his pocket.
He was alert and aware until the very end. The day before he died he asked my mom to open his top dresser drawer and reach in the back to find an old handkerchief. It was white with red polka dots and had belonged to his grandfather. When my great-grandfather died, the handkerchief became my father’s, and he carried it every time he went into the woods to hunt. I don’t remember my dad hunting often, but I do know he’d go with his grandfather in the woods of Westmoreland. I imagine that handkerchief connected them somehow. He asked my mother to give the handkerchief to my son, passed down from one grandson to another. My parents had been married for nearly 50 years when my dad passed, and my mother never knew about the handkerchief – neither the existence of it nor the story.
I thought about that polka-dotted handkerchief, and about all the places it might have been. I wondered if my dad had carried it with him when he logged in the woods. Did he have it with him as a Marine in Vietnam? Did he tuck it in his pocket on his wedding day? Had he taken it out of the drawer to hold when his two daughters were born? Or, did he leave it there in the drawer safe and sound, resting in the knowledge that a piece of his grandfather was with him?
I thought about the places my dad and I had talked about going, the things we talked about doing, the places I would never see with him. It was unbearable. I couldn’t imagine life without him. But these worn handkerchiefs held a bit of my dad, and me. I could take him anywhere.
I have carried one on every hike since he passed. Through these handkerchiefs, my dad has been with me in the highlands of Scotland (one of the places we both wanted to visit). He’s been clutched in my hand on airplanes when my anxiety tried to get the better of me. He’s been in my bag during every job interview. He was tucked in my husband’s suit jacket pocket when I crossed the stage and graduated with my master’s degree. He’s wiped my tears that wouldn’t stop streaming while sitting in the Glasgow Cathedral. He’s been tucked in my shirt when I experienced the absolutely breathtaking experience of hang gliding. He dried my eyes the day I buried my mother, and he’s been with me on every summit that has held my feet since he passed.
I know he’s with me whether I hold those handkerchiefs or not, but it makes me feel better to think we’re together when I do.
Before my mother died, she kindly gave me most of my dad’s remaining handkerchiefs. I know if I am careful with them, and take good care, they will see me through my remaining years.
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