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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

When I was little, and I’d get hurt, soiled or sodden, my dad would saunter toward me, searching around in his pockets. His stroll lacked urgency, which made me suspect my situation perhaps lacked urgency too and might not end up sending me to the emergency room. By the time he arrived, my father had usually found what he was looking for, a navy-blue handkerchief with a white paisley design swirling around its center. 

Some parents choose to treat their children’s bruises, abrasions and other mishaps with ice packs, warm compresses, aspirin, tinctures, salves or stitches. But he believed a wrinkled piece of cloth was always the right prescription. 

“Here, son,” he’d say calmly. “Let me just smear the mummified leftovers from your prior injury or accident into your new one. That ought to clear things up. There, there. All better.”

He called this scrap of fabric a “hanky,” because there simply wasn’t enough time to say “handkerchief” in its entirely every time he used it. 

To me, it wasn’t merely unhygienic; it was also profoundly uncool. He never ceased to find new ways to apply the hanky, mopping up spilled gasoline one moment, then wiping away a tear from a baby’s face the next. The little blue cloth was used to dust off seats, rub ointment into a cow’s wound, and sometimes, to varying effect, to shoo away wasps and hornets. Every living being who saw it coming was temporarily distracted from his or her current crisis by a single question: Does that cloth have boogers on it?!

I recently listened to an NPR podcast (please don’t stop reading quite yet, I know how boring and pretentious that sounds) about placebos. One exhaustive study actually found that patients who had real joint surgery and those on whom the doctor merely pretendedto perform surgery experienced the exact same amount of improvement. It’s not proof that the surgery didn’t work; quite the contrary–it’s proof that fake surgery actually worked astoundingly well. 

The handkerchief was clearly a placebo, but when I really think back, I realize it worked more often than not.

I can only recall two occasions on which my injury exceeded the hanky’s legendary healing capacity. 

The first time, I was six and I tripped on the flapping end of one of my tube socks, plunging face-first onto the corner of a wooden box. My mom held my bloody head as my dad drove casually to the hospital, stopping at every chance to wave on other cars at intersections, pedestrians who were considering crossing the street, and families of aquatic waterfowl that were out for a stroll that afternoon. In the backseat, it looked like I was in the Zapruder film, as I wept and smeared the ruby red blood of childhood into the fabric. Up front, it was a pleasant Sunday drive. By the time I left the ER, I had 19 stitches on my face. 

The other time, when I was 16, involved a board, a rusty nail, my shoe, and–this is a key element to the narrative–my foot. After being forced to help my dad clean a barn, I was stomping around in my skater sneakers, which I hoped made me look apathetic and a little bit grunge, and generally trying to be the type of person who didn’t clean barns and certainly didn’t carry or ever need a handkerchief. In one corner of the dark old building, as I made my way around dehydrated, racoon-excrement jerky, I stomped in exactly the wrong place, directly onto a board that had an 834-penny nail the color of Mars and the texture of Danny Trejo’s face sticking out of it. 

“Dad!” I said. “I stepped on a nail.”

“Walk it off,” he called from across the room.

When I lifted my foot off the ground, the board, which had been nailed firmly into my sole, came with it. 

“Oh,” he said. “Maybe don’t. Don’t walk.”

I had to hold the board down with one foot while I yanked my other one off of it.

At the doctor’s office, after I’d been bandaged and given an injection and a prescription for some pills to take, I lamented to anyone who would listen: “Oh, man. This is really going to ruin my ultimate frisbee plans.”

“Do you play ultimate frisbee?” the doctor asked.

“No,” I said honestly. “But this is the summer I kind of planned on getting good at it.”

Many years earlier, when I was merely a toddler, a cow kicked a pitchfork my dad was carrying, sending the butt end of it into his face so hard that it flayed a sizeable flap of skin off of just beneath his eye. I remember when he came to the kitchen, standing in the doorway, covered in blood and manure. I didn’t rush to help him, or cling to his leg and cry. I didn’t even go to get help. 

No, I scuttled under the counter, clambering into a floor-level cabinet and closing the door behind me once I was inside. 

“That’s better,” I thought to myself in the darkness. “Now everything is fine.”

I remember he let me touch his stitches when he got home later, delicately dabbing it with his blue hanky after I was done, brushing away any germs applied by my sticky little toddler fingers, and adding some new ones from whatever tragedy the cloth had most recently treated. 

Next month I’ll turn 40. I plan to buy myself a little gift. Something I used to hate, but which I’m starting to understand and appreciate as I raise my own child. 

Every day for the past five years, my daughter has spent most of her time spilling milk, paint, water, dog food (so much dog food), and an assortment of other things as she travels through life. 

Just as I step into the shower, I always hear the panicked patter of little feet and hear her voice:

“Dad! I got yogrit (that’s how she says it) on the ceiling again!”

When she’s not spilling things, she is cutting or bruising herself. I’m not saying she’s a “cutter,” not in the traditional, angsty, teenage sense at least, because she’s using her own negligence combined with gravity and the planet Earth to do most of the damage. But she is always getting scraped, cut, and pinched. Just the other day, she was running down the sidewalk, laughing in the springtime sun, and she decided to trip and fall directly onto her face, without even trying to break the impact of her tumble with her hands. As I picked  her up off the ground, and I saw the innocent ruby red blood of a child pouring out of her mouth, and the mineral-rich tears of someone who can ferociously cry began tumbling down her face, all I could do was press her up to the fabric of my shirt and act like everything was fine. 

“I would do anything for a handkerchief right now,” I thought, for the thousandth time since becoming a dad. 

Who knows where this will lead. Maybe I’ll get really into handkerchiefs and graduate to the pocket square, which we all know is the hanky’s softer, posher cousin. Maybe I’ll decide to weigh in on the controversy over whether it’s spelled “hanky” or “hankie,” and I can find a social media thread about it and call anyone who disagrees with me terrible, hurtful names. 

The possibilities are endless. 

However it plays out, I like the idea of strolling around, undaunted, never in a hurry, but always ready to clean up after one of life’s endless little tragedies. 


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