It was Reginald Ambrose Darling. Current of Darlington House and the Upper East Side via Reggie Darling who posited on the blow versus show aspects of utilitarian handkerchiefs. You can read his, as usual, correct orientation here. Bottom line is that gentlemen for ages carried white cotton handkerchiefs in their trousers pocket not only for nose blowing but for any call that might require a gentlemanly daub at a smudge on oneself or a child or anything or anyone requiring an intervention remediable by a gentlemanly gesture…courtesy of a utilitarian square of cotton.
My breast pocket hanks and my utilitarian ones were from the same source for years. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I’d be caught dead with anything in my breast pocket but a white linen or cotton square. Of course those were segregated from my utilitarian handkerchiefs. Breast pocket whites should remain crisp. Utilitarian hanks become wispy and attenuated and thin and silky feeling after about twenty washings. Clearly, there’s a difference between blow versus show.
I can remember being about twenty three years old, peddling pharmaceuticals in Charlotte, N.C. and sitting in the waiting room of a pediatrician’s office, biding my time before being called back to talk to the docs about my antibiotic syrup. There was a little girl, probably about ten years old, a Down’s Syndrome or some other genetic disorder little gal and she was, as many Down’s kids are, curious and talkative and tactile and wanted to know what was in my bag so I visited with her. The reason I remember this story isn’t because of what I next did but because of the reaction to it. I don’t remember who was with this child or who was supposed to be watching her and she didn’t seem unattended per se. It was a busy waiting room and I’m sure someone was there with her. But she had some stuff in one of her eyes so I just pulled the blow version of my white cotton hank that rode in my back pocket and said “let me get that” and I just wiped this little girl’s eye. Blow versus show. In action.
The nurse called me back to see the docs a moment later and when the door closed behind us, she was in tears. “That’s the nicest thing that you did for that little girl, in addition to just sitting and talking with her.” I’m thinking, shit, all I did was take care if an eye booger. If this makes women cry, I might be on to something here. Now before you think that I was some kind of twenty three year old special needs children’s advocate…the Mother Damn Teresa of eye booger extrication, let’s balance this anecdote out. Chances are, the Friday night after this little episode, I was at the Cellar, trying my damndest to extricate the cotton swathings of certain trixies. In other words, hanky
panky-wise, I was showing. We won’t talk about the blowing.
"Do you want his Masonic ring?” my mother asked. While I was honored that she wanted me to have it, I decided that it would be best kept with her, in a safe place at home as opposed to being added to my box of random family trinkets. I have my grandfather’s pocket watch and my father’s signetring, neither of which I use. So my stepfather’s Masonic ring would stay put. I loved him like my blood father but I wasn’t going to wear his ring from the Lodge.
I was still an undergrad, voraciously curious about Freemasonry and anxious to learn the secrets as soon as I turned twenty one. Three of the four founders of my college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Order, were Masons who’d returned to college after the Civil War. Like many college fraternity rituals, the KA initiation poached a twist or two from the Freemasons so I was extra curious to be made a Master Mason. My stepfather signed my petition to apply for Masonic membership. And so while still in college, I began the sixth month study and the ordeal of three different initiation rituals that in the end, bestow upon one the degree of Master or 3rd Degree Mason. There’s a reason the slang phrase “the third degree” is used to denote someone getting an ass chewing or dressing down of note. That’s all I can say other than that by the time I got the 3rd degree, they’d calmed the process down a bit. My grandfather got a cracked rib along with his 3rd. And without revealing too much, the other thing I will share is that during my 3rd Degree, when I was no longer hoodwinked, when I could finally see, the first face that I saw was that of my stepfather. He unbeknownst to me, was there to participate in the final steps of making me a Master Mason. My biological father never so much as threw me a baseball so I don’t expect you to appreciate what this did and still means to me.
He was of the Greatest Generation. My father missed the war but my stepfather, ten years my mother’s senior, was a Navy man in the Pacific. He’d tell you that the Pacific theater would have had a different outcome if he hadn’t as a teenager, been there. But then he'd soon admit that what he really did on board the ship was bake pies. He helped keep the boys fed. And back home he was loved by all who knew him and he was constantly in the service of others. Kids and dogs loved him. LFG went straight to him before she ever let my mom put hand on her. And here he is with my mom and three of her sisters...getting some kind of treatment.
His first wife died of lung cancer and he was left with an elementary school daughter and a high school age son. Ditto my mother’s circumstances except my mother also had a college freshman daughter. Fast forward a few years and by the time I was a senior in high school, this man was calling on my mother. They attended different churches but some mutual church friends connected them. It was kinda of odd going to the door and greeting my mother’s “date” but it was also cute. He’d get his kids situated and come over during the week in a suit and tie and court my mom for an hour or so. By the end of my senior year, he was a fixture around our house. So much so that he grilled steaks for me and my buddy and our senior prom dates. Oh, and he snapped the now infamous yellow polyester tuxedo shot of shame above.
They married after I was out of the house and debauching wildly as a freshman in college but I came to love this man as if he was my biological father. Mostly because of the way he treated my mother...for the next thirty years. I haven’t to this day seen anyone treat another person with such dignity and respect. And he didn’t do it for show…just when his wife’s kids were visiting. He was unerringly consistent in standing up when she walked in the room…of getting up earlier than my mom and preparing coffee and danish or whatever the breakfast fare might be. She was loved for thirty years by a man who loved her the way that my father should have. Oh, and here’s another testimonial to this man’s goodness. My mother took him to meet my paternal grandparents before she married him. My father’s father thought the world of him and essentially told him during their first meeting to get off of his ass and marry my mom because he would never find a better woman.
And he loved us too. I’m convinced of it…as much as he loved his biological kids. The man was deeply religious and my mom said that he prayed bedside every night. On his knees. She said sometimes she thought he’d never finish his prayers and climb into bed. He was one of those guys that emanated that something…that almost Zen like peaceful presence that made you say “I don’t know what the hell that is but I’ll have a double shot of it.” Well I do know what it was. His goodness and kindness was the furnace that fueled his existence and it came through in spades. Case in point…he is seventy eight years old in the photo above. Bolo tie and Nautica shirt to what would have been my dad’s Trad ensemble. He’s handling my precious bundle, LFG and he could not have been prouder of me and his little granddaughter. But folks, for all practical purposes, he’s blind. Macular degeneration had robbed him by this time, of eighty percent of his sight. But you would never know it by his essence. And during the draw-down of his ability to see, not once did his spirit waver. Not once did he complain and never did he feel sorry for himself. Amidst his encroaching blindness, it was impossible for him not to see and focus on his blessings, even as they in his later years became fewer.
LFG called my mom and stepfather one Saturday morning about four years ago. LFG was on with my mom and I could hear her loud, high pitched Southern voice and I could watch LFG’s expression as they visited. A moment later I’m on with my mom and she’s inconsolable. She’d put her best face on for LFG but now that she was on with me I learned that my stepfather was dead. Sitting in his chair in the family room. They had yet to remove him from the house and the first responder guys and the medical examiner were doing the paperwork necessary to skip the ambulance intervention and have the funeral home simply take him. It was such a beautiful and deserved exit. He was sitting peacefully, fully dressed, hands clasped together like they always were when he napped in his chair. He always got up earlier than my mom and she simply thought that he was dozing. There was no sign of pain, no sign of writhing amidst some acute attack of anything. He just went Home. It is not ours to bargain for how and when we exit but I would sign up for his journey in a heartbeat. His was a life well lived and a departure so appropriate that there’s just no other way for me to describe it than the perfect exit.
I don’t have to write a letter to him post mortem like I did to my dad, telling him things I’d like for him to know. Unlike my father, my stepfather heard it from me first-hand. He was among the five surrogate fathers that I had stand up during my wedding dinner and I told him in front of a few hundred people how much I loved him for loving my mom and for loving us. Oh, and I used to embarrass the shit out of him by kissing him. I thought that I could get through this story without the waterworks flowing but they’ve just started. I’m at home right now. Sitting in the chair that he so gracefully left us while sitting in. Couldn’t be a better time for the blow version of a hank.
“Isn’t there something of his that you want?” my mom said after I declined his Masonic ring. I took one material remembrance of my stepfather. His blue Have-a-Hanks were part of his ensemble from the day I met him. He would sometimes wear something more elegant in his breast pocket but he always had a blue cowboy handkerchief discretely folded in his trouser pocket for blow. Always. And always blue. And some had been laundered so many times that they were thin and silky. The Navy man in him insisted that he personally fold them and put them in his drawer just so. And I took one. One that he folded. Just so. It remains folded in my dresser drawer at home. Right beside a pair of Merkin’s Corgi socks. Just so. I swear that the handkerchief smelled like my stepfather for at least the first three months that I had it. Maybe I just wanted it to. Whatever. All I know is that I’d smell it every day or so and he would be with me again. In all of his kindness and gentility and goodness for which I so respected him.
So on this Father’s Day all I have to do is say again what I was privileged enough to say to him more than once during the time that he was in my life. I love you.
Onward. At home with my mama. And LFG