Can you imagine the temerity of a woman, any woman, who would consider her tears so sacrosanct they dare not be wasted. I’ve just learned about an old custom I thought I’d never heard of in my whole life, but came to change my mind (read on)–that of saving tear-stained lace-trimmed handkerchiefs in ornate little boxes with handwritten paper notes pinned to them with handwritten notes: from So and So’s funeral, Toosie & Evelyn’s wedding, Little Bette’s home birth, all tucked away in an attic. Why? Possibly to be marveled at and wondered over by future generations.
Whoever observed this custom had to have been rich. Handkerchiefs were very much present in the pre-throwaway-tissue days of my early childhood. Even a little girl learned a first lesson of responsibility by carrying them everywhere since one never knew when one might need a handy kerchief.
I tied my school lunch money (20¢) in one corner of mine to keep it safe every morning until Mrs. Bailey called the class roll and collected it to turn over to the school principal. Then I’d twist its softness around and around my fingers, in an effort to stretch out the indented design the coins had left. My wrist made a good place to tie it so it wouldn’t get lost during the school day when my hands got too busy with schoolwork.
If they made it home virtually unused by the end of the day, they were finger pressed and neatly folded for another day. If they’d been used for whatever reason–from wiping the blood off skinned knees when you tripped over the straying wood at the end of the woodpile, blotting your tears when the boys teased you one too many times, or for the obvious reason–(collecting nose discharge)–then they went to the dirty clothes hamper to be washed the very next washday.
On iron day (usually the very next day) it was always my chore to iron everyone’s hankies, even the big white ones my father used. I was Mama’s ironer in training without recognizing the distinction, and I remember the pride I felt, not only in getting every wrinkle smooth, but in folding as perfectly as possible and then giving the quarter-folded, then half-fold a final pat with the iron.
The handkerchiefs in our family, even those with lacy embroidered edges which we were taught as young girls to do, were used until virtually threadbare and by which time they’d become our favorites because they were so soft for those days softness was doubly appreciated when colds made the tips of our noses not only red but sore from too many nose blows and wipes. Only then were they tossed away, and then only if some parts were not salvageable for some other use. So you had to be rich if you were able to use a handkerchief once–and that for tears–and then fold them away for posterity.
Then, as I’m won’t to do, I researched curious customs online (where else?) and found various renditions of the custom dating all the way back to biblical times. Apparently a verse in Psalms (56:8) according to one website. I read about the custom of collecting tears shed in time of calamity and sorrow preserved in a small bottle or lachrymatory as a memorial of the grief. It was a custom to wipe away tears from the eyes with a piece of cloth, then squeeze the tears into a small bottle to preserved as a memorial of the sorrow.
Slowly, another old memory pops to mind. I remember hearing a story told by Sister Margie at Everybody’s Tabernacle when I was a child about Mary Magdelene kneeling at the feet of Jesus, wetting and washing them with her tears, then drying them with her hair. Afterwards she brought a jar of expensive oil or perfume and annointed them in the custom of the day.
Another version of the same story has either an unnamed woman or a woman of ill repute using the tears from her tear bottle to wash Christ’s feet in an apparent act of sublimation at his non-judgmental acceptance of her as a good woman. So still I live and learn…and there are so many books to read, therefore so much to learn, before I sing my last winter song.
I’m hoping there will be some among possible future readers who know of this tear collecting custom, or other curious customs whether about tears or anything else perhaps in your own families, who will be willing to share them with me here.