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Grandmother’s handkerchief. If you closely, you’ll see what looks like stray pencil marks.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! (And while I have you, quick apologies for ages 13-21) — PureWow

As I get ready for work in the morning, I often notice my maternal grandmother’s handkerchief draped over a framed print on a dresser. It was a gift from my mother several years ago. Recently, as I took in its gentle embroidery work, I picked it up and sniffed it in a futile attempt to pick up the scent of Helen, my grandmother.

Grandmother, whose scent was a unique blend of Folgers coffee, Avon cream, peppermint, and Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, was always reassuring. This morning, I was fatigued and feeling particularly nostalgic as I held Grandmother’s kerchief. Her scent would have at least provided some small measure of comfort. Instead, I was left to trace the delicate stitching. Upon closer inspection, I noticed what appeared to be a stray pencil mark or two, and I was taken into the past.

My mind drifted to that fundamentalist country church of my youth. I often begged my mom’s permission to sit with Grandmother and Pappaw. Grandmother’s handbag, the size of a shoebox, was always well-supplied for church services that were sure to be long. Unclasp the top, and inside, one could find mints, assorted candy, gum, pencils, pens, and old C&O notepads from Papaw’s time of working on the railroad.

While both my grandmother and my mom expected that I stand and hold the hymnal anytime we sang, grandmother permitted me to continue holding the hymnal on my lap as a makeshift desk in order to write, draw, or even play the dot game or hangman with a sibling or cousin. In this manner, I was able to remain respectfully quiet, which was also expected by both of my “ruling” women.

If the sermon offered to the attending flock hit a certain emotional note, or if someone sang a special song, such as one originally performed by a popular gospel group at the time, the Happy Goodman Family, “What a Beautiful Day,” “God Walks the Dark Hills,” or if the congregation simply sang, “Amazing Grace,” I would often see tears stream down Grandmother’s face. She’d reach in her purse for a handkerchief, dab at her eyes, and continue to hold on to that handkerchief, squeezing it as if her life depended on it. Looking at the handkerchief, I suddenly remembered with great realism, Grandmother’s strong hands squeezing mine. It was faint, and then it was gone.

I looked at my own hands. They are the hands of mother and my grandmother. Already, at age 55, they are starting to slightly misshapen from squeezing/holding too tightly onto things. My fingers, like the women before me, are short and wide — nothing like the Palmolive hand models of long-ago commercials. However, like both women, my hands are strong as I am typically better at opening jars and bottle tops than my husband.

Grandmother’s own hands were strong from years of manual labor. She single-handedly ran a grocery store and managed/cooked/served for its lunch counter, butchered the store’s meat, maintained and sliced its deli cheese and lunch meats while also raising two young boys (she would not have my mother until over a decade later.).

Later, after my grandparents lost nearly everything in the flood of 1937, they moved to higher ground, left the grocery store business, and Papaw began working exclusively for the railroad. Grandmother then became a full-time devoted housewife and mother. Those hands of hers ran a precise schedule for daily, weekly, and annual cleanings, cooking, laundry, ironing, and so forth. In fact, looking at her handkerchief, I can tell it has been worn thin from repeated washings and ironing. If there was one thing Grandmother knew how to do well, it was to create a reliable routine and schedule.

My mom likewise employed her mother’s ability to create a reliable daily structure with my three siblings and me. We got what she cooked (although Grandmother was far more indulgent with her grandkids), and we cleaned with regularity. In fact, every Saturday we were expected to strip the sheets off our bed, remake our beds with clean sheets, and then dust/sweep our bedrooms. Later, when we were older, we were also assigned another room in the house to clean on Saturday. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized very few of my friends had the same expectations! In fact, one of my sister’s friends once shared, years later, that she drew inspiration from my mom’s Saturday schedule when raising her own children.

In Grandmother’s daily routine, and later, in Mom’s schedule, there was also set aside time for rest and relaxation. You worked hard when it was time to work, but there was built-in time for reading and relaxing. Grandmother’s house, and later my own childhood home, was filled with books, magazines, and bibles. Perhaps, it was because Grandmother’s 8th grade education bothered her, even though she was more educated than Papaw, reading was especially important to Grandmother, hence reading was also important to my own childhood home.

Recently, my mom has spent a good deal of time talking with me about her church. She said one of her friends at church loves Vestal Goodman, and all the rest of the Happy Goodman Family, whose songs were frequently sung at my Grandmother’s church. Mom has played Facebook videos of the church pianist who performs the ol’ time gospel tunes of Grandmother’s long ago church, and praises the pastor who knows how to touch her both intellectually and spiritually. I can’t help but be reminded of Grandmother and secretly wonder if my mom carries a hanky to church, too.

Preparing to write this piece, I clicked through a few youtube videos of the Happy Goodman Family, remembering their albums echoing through my grandparents house as Grandmother dusted and swept. It wasn’t until I paused long enough for the entirety of “God Walks The Dark Hills,” that I noticed that Vestal was holding a handkerchief. As I clicked through more videos, Vestal indeed was holding a hanky in each one! I walked back to my bedroom and once more to pick up Grandmother’s delicate hanky. Holding Grandmother’s handkerchief, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I saw both my mom’s and grandmother’s faces staring back at me.

“It’s not how many years we live, but what we do with them. It’s not what we receive, but what we give unto others.” — written by my grandmother, Helen Slater, on Nov. 13, 1957, in my mother’s autograph book

Grandmother Helen, thanks for the “handy” reminder of the importance of faith, family, and all of those intangibles that I once took for granted. Even now, you’re still giving me a hand.

If you can see me in heaven, I’m sending you a hand-ful of gratitude on this coming Mother’s Day.

And, Mom, I know that I was a hand-ful, so I’m especially sending you these words of Mother’s Day appreciation along with much love. You taught me not to start a sentence with “and,” but you know I often struggled with obedience. This quote is for you, Mom:

“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.” — Erma Bombeck

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992

@zoominternet.net. Or you can check out her website, stephsimply.com.

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