Paula E. Hartman-Stein

The Handkerchief


When I was new, I was a white, crisp, cotton man’s handkerchief,
utilitarian in purpose, plain and practical
with a traditional satin banded edge that gave me some distinction.

With no monogram in sight, any and every man could use me.

My owner was an older man with a kind voice and a frequent laugh
who stuffed me in the pocket of tattered green work pants.

At times I smelled of pungent gasoline and oil
A scent from antique cars on which he toiled,
He often stopped the sound of his tools and drill
To help those who needed his mechanical skill.

My usual home was the pocket of his clean, brown, dress trousers.
In that location I heard the sounds of Mass,
or the man’s soft crying
when he visited his wife’s grave on Sunday afternoons,
regardless of the weather.

But I recall sounds of hearty laughter too

One day in mid June I moved to his bed,
never leaving his side again.
He clenched me tightly day and night.
I comforted him with my familiarity, the only cloth from home.
I heard voices speaking in hushed and serious sounding tones.
Buzzers sounded randomly.
This time it was his daughter who cried softly.

One early morning 9 hours after his daughter and her family left
To send their son off to college
It was time for his touch to grow cold
He was no longer needed on this earth
All his lessons were learned
and his teaching to others was done.

A stranger packed me in a simple plastic bag.
For weeks no one touched or used me,
I lie alone amidst a pile of unrelated clothing,
feeling abandoned, discarded and unwanted.

It was the man’s daughter who found me,
washed me,
and held me tenderly.

In my later years I am still white but not as crisp.
I live deep in the daughter’s pocketbook.
I smell of sweet lotions and minted candies.
I move from one handbag to another,

At times her hand grabs things around me
madly searching for an unknown object.
Then, with effort, I pop up,
so she will notice me.
The frenetic motion stops abruptly. 

I have the power to slow down her hand
and her breathing.
She lingers and holds me briefly.

I am old now.
My purpose is new,
I have a calming presence.

Through me,
she feels his energy
and remembers.


Paula Hartman-Stein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Kent, Ohio, specializing in geropsychology. For 20 years she has been a correspondent on aging issues for the newspaper, The National Psychologist. She has edited two professional books and published numerous journal articles and book chapters. She leads reflective writing workshops to enhance health and spiritual growth. Her website is