Collection ©Elisa Salasin, 2009

My mother’s collection was hankies, my father’s, guns.  Mother’s hankies were in her top dresser drawer surrounded by used nylons she deemed too good to throw away.  Each hanky was ironed and many were lacey.  They sat in ordered piles, unlike the strewn nylons full of snags and ladders.  Several fancy handkerchiefs had embroidered flowers or shamrocks in their corners.

We carried hankies from our own drawers to school each day; they were not fancy but practical.  The boys had maroon and blue-bordered handkerchiefs, twice the size of the girls’.  My father carried even larger all white cotton ones in his suit pocket.  On Sundays, at Mass, I usually had to use his as I’d forgotten to bring mine.  He’d hand over the pristine square and reluctantly take it back after I’d blown in it; he’d ball it up and stick it in his pants’ pocket.

I learned to iron practicing on handkerchiefs.  The laundry was upstairs in the old bunk bed room.   The washer jigged across the floor during its spin cycle.  The dryer sang, “How dry I am, how dry I am, nobody knows, how dry I am” when it stopped.  It may have been an old temperance song.  After they’d been washed, dried, then sprinkled, I stood at the ironing board plying the hot iron across the whole family’s collection.  I felt very privileged.  Eventually I graduated to Dad’s boxer shorts and finally to the intricacies of buttoned shirts.  Mother had specific rules about shirts.  Iron the collar and cuffs first, the sleeves then back before the sides and the placket with the buttons last. I managed to make money on my honed skills when my brother’s had dates and needed something ironed fast.

Mother’s hankies had each been a gift and most she’d labeled with a lined rectangle of paper naming the occasion and giver.  When I went through them, after her death, I found one that said “From Mary, Mother’s Day 1952.”  I took that one and another from her wedding day in the 30’s.  She said she’d cried throughout the ceremony.  I figured my tears mixed with hers as I mourned her.

My father’s guns were from my grandfather’s trials in Rochester when he served as District Attorney.  My father loved to tell us one grisly crime, when we pleaded to hear it, over and over again.  Mother tried to get him to stop, but he delighted in it.  It seems a body was discovered, dismembered and stuffed into a wooden barrel, in a farmer’s field near where we lived.  The farmer scraped into it while plowing.  Mother said it was a Mafia killing and she thought even the retelling of it made us less safe. But Dad delighted in introducing us to the macabre.  He’d sit at the breakfast table adding gory details and then entertain us further by eating his fried egg whole.

The guns were in the attic in a leather valise so old the leather was peeling.  The clasp was supposedly locked but it could be jimmied open.  We were forbidden to touch them but we sometimes just had to.

One brother and I pried the lock and took each handgun out.  Colored tags on wire were attached to them to identify each court case.  We stared down the barrels and rotated the bullet chambers and fondled the cocks but we never pulled the trigger.  There was a popular song my sister sang with the lyrics “I didn’t know the gun was loaded and I’m so sorry my friend.”  That was caution enough for us.

I lined each gun up on mother’s trunk as I might line up my dolls.  When we heard mother coming upstairs, we crammed them back into the bag and pretended to be looking at Christmas ornaments.  She would have killed us had she known.  Even worse, I sometimes had murder in my heart.  When they raised the roof to put on an addition, the guns disappeared.

I’ve always admired people’s collections but have been personally incapable of making a good one for myself. My father had a small cache of Indian head pennies that I talked him out of; they’re tucked under sweaters in my closet.  I collected Holy cards from weddings and funerals and some the nuns gave me for obeying them but I threw the lot away when I moved west. Since I’m a teacher, I thought collecting pencils was appropriate but I always sharpened and used them, eventually.  I also tried saving nesting dolls but my daughter couldn’t stand looking at them.   When one friend told me his brother saved all his clipped toenails in a jar, I figured it was okay to be just what I am, a non-collector.

©Mary Barrett, 2010

Mary Barrett did her BAWP summer sometime in the nineties, the same summer Patrick Delaney did his.  She is now retired from her Reading Specialist job in Berkeley and has just published a collection of childhood stories—oops, she does have a collection!!!!

19 Responses to “Hankies and Guns by Mary Barrett”

  1. Tay Says:

    Thank you my sister for these memories. I grabbed a bunch of those hankies myself a long time ago and presented one to each grandchild one Christmastime. Sally was especially moved. I’m glad you have them, too. And I’m so glad that old song saved you from certain death.


  2. Paul Says:

    Mary, my dear. ‘Tis a fine tale indeed, I just wish it were longer, with more juicy tidbits. If you ever think you’d like to start some sort of collection ask me first. You might like my clocks (more metaphores?). I also have a nice nesting doll set that has Bill Clinton on the outside and ends with Monica in the middle.

    love, Paul

  3. guillermo Says:


    Now that I know you’re gifted with ironing, I’ve got a job for you.

    The pattern held true for my parents, too: handkerchiefs in the top drawer, lots of them and guns in the attic, in this case my grandmother’s attic. My father had some WW II weapons, including a sword. I remember him telling an Errol Flynn type story of how he snatched the sword from an enemy. Do we males harbor such tales of valor in our imaginations?

    I say, bring back the hankie! Down with ‘puffs’ and ‘kleenex’ and mountains of balled up tissue in waste baskets. Besides, they never quite work at Mass as a head covering which, I’m told, is coming back.

    Gracias for nailing another vignette more common than you imagine……..


  4. John Barrett Says:

    Mairsie;I can just feel the heat in that stuffy attic and the excitement of pawing through the weapon collection.

    After the addition was done the bag went farther back into the attic, but it was still there. When Dad was starting to drift into Alzheimer’s he gave the guns to a local lawyer, instead of entrusting them to us. The lawyer, an ex-D.A., took them out in his boat and dumped them into the lake.

    As your oldest brother (not the one in the story since I remember pulling the trigger more than once), I appreciate this memoir and thank you for publishing it. Your writing skills are magnificent.

    Love, John

  5. Lainie Says:

    I love this, Mary! Such a beautiful writer. Also, where is the collection of childhood stories?? I’m sorry if I missed the alert on those, but I’m very interested!

  6. Judy Says:

    This so evokes your mom and dad. I love the learning to iron, a privilege. Well done, dear friend.

  7. Mamie Says:

    That was a wonderful story, Auntie Mary. I wish we still had washing machines that sang a song when done rather than buzzing angrily. I love reading what you write.

  8. eileen b. barrett Says:

    marzie-doats-sweet work baby girl-you always bring up the essence of the thing-i have some of the mom hankies too-soft ,sweet,relics… sister eil

  9. Carole Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Thank you for this wonderfully written piece Mary. It is such an intimate family memory (imagine the snot and the stocking snags!) and the humor in there makes my heart glad (picturing your Dad stuffing the used handkechief reluctantly in his pocket and hearing the click of the unpulled trigger). You can sure capture the beauty of everyday and ever so meaningful shared moments.

    Learning to iron brings back a lot of memories too, an intimate time between mother and daughter, passing on the secrets of womanhood. I learned about my changing body and my impending monthly periods during those white shirt ironing sessions. My mother had the same order of cuffs and collars first so it must be the right one, she was better on that than on the sex education part. She left a lot of room for my imagination and reading Lolita to fill in the details.

    You filled me in later on the most important details of how to get pregnant, and now I’ve got Brandon and Nathan to show for it. Thanks for that too. i love your writing, and I love you, Carole

  10. Barbara Says:

    So pleasurable to have read this beautiful and loving story while visiting my old family home where my mother taught me to sprinkle and iron the collars first, just as yours did.

    Your collection is growing . . .

  11. Joe Says:

    John’s right about the leather satchel being shoved further back in the attic after the roof was raised. Have no fear I, and my friends, fondled the felonious evidentiary exhibits as well – on into the early 60’s at least.

    As for the hankies, I learned to iron them first, too, then went on to shirts. I still like to iron the occasional shirt – though I can’t imagine doing so every day, as our dear Mother did.

    Thanks for reminding me about the tuneful dryer. Why, as Mamie asks, don’t they all play songs? And thanks for continuing to jog all our memories so delightfully.

  12. Thomas Shane Says:

    Where do I get my hankie? Tears big as horseballs. Could sing “How Dry I Am,” but that wouldn’t be the truth. Love, TS

  13. Ruby Bernstein Says:

    Mary, I, too, made my ironing debut –carefully — on beautiful linen Shirley Temple hankies my New York Aunt Libby sent me. With my Shirley Temple curls, my blue and white handkerchiefs, and my patent leather Mary Janes, I was quite the swell in Santa Maria, CA.

    You’ve reminded me it’s time to take down my mother’s button collection, stored on a shelf above my computer in a beautiful carved walnut box.

    Thanks for your memories and triggering mine, Mary.

    1. mary barrett Says:

      Dear Ruby Bernstein, What a beautiful picture you describe with those New York hankies! Thank you for your response.

  14. Rust Paint : Says:

    bunk beds should be made from strong materials like steel or better yet composite fibers~`~

  15. Gas Sensor : Says:

    well it is nearing for us to buy some christmas ornaments for the coming christmas~*”

  16. bunk beds are quite comfortable specially if you use them in a tightly packed room or in a limited spaced room :”,

  17. we will be buying more christmas ornaments these christmas because we like to decorate more *’`

  18. marcia umland Says:

    I enjoyed this. You made your childhood home come alive with only hankies and hidden guns. I’m sure there are more old treasures you can bring out of hiding. Congrats on your retirement.

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