When I got married I had about a hundred dishtowels. That’s not even an exaggeration. I had dishtowels with watermelons and dishtowels with lemons. I had dishtowels with sunflowers and stripes and bears and hearts.
I had so many dishtowels that I started giving them away because I didn’t think it was possible for a human to ever need that many dishtowels in a lifetime.
I kept one of each design for variety but pared my collection down to just a few.
Besides, none of them ever worked. They looked like dishtowels, which might have implied that they would dry dishes, but all they ever did was push the water around until it was acceptably thinned enough that I could stack damp dishes in the cabinet.
The only dishtowels I really liked were these ultra thin white towels that my grandmother said she used in her shop – where my grandparents manufactured artificial flowers and arrangements for a living.
Every dishtowel I ever owned came from my grandmother. She stocked me up good. But the industrial towels, those special white ones from the shop, were the only ones that actually worked to absorb water.
She gave me about a dozen of those and I kept every one.
After nearly eighteen years of marriage (and never once purchasing my own dishtowel), they have started to stain and fray. They are embarrassing to have in the kitchen when guests show up because no matter how I may bleach them, they simply don’t come clean anymore.
But damnit, those things can dry.
So I keep the good towels for private use and use my array of “pretty” towels so people don’t think my kitchen is repulsive.
My grandmother, she never met a sale she didn’t like. If a deal could be had, she bought things whether she needed them or not. Dishtowels were only the start of her collection.
She had boxes full of costume jewelry, sometimes in duplicate and triplicate (“You never know when you might need a gift.”)
She had cabinets full of dinnerware (“I got this set at Stop-n-Shop because every time you spent $20 you got one plate.”)
She had drawers of silverware, hangers of dresses, shelves of Christmas ornaments.
Once she went through a bit of a clean-out and decided to bring some of her unused things to a consignment shop. Out went a beautiful red coat (I wished it fit me) and a gorgeous black dress (once it did). And with those went a blue raincoat, from a store named Korvettes that hasn’t been in business for decades, still with the price tag on it and a receipt in the pocket dated 1974.
That raincoat sat in her closet with the tags on it for over 30 years.
In addition to her rather interesting habit of collecting things, she also had a bad habit of never using any of it.
She had a set of silverware that she used every day, from the day I was born until the day she died and never once opened up one of the new sets she had bought. She had a special Christmas set and also one for When Company Comes, but mostly she used that same single set (“If you want these when you get married I’ll give them to you.”)
She had a staggering number of shoes and yet she wore the same two pair over and over. The everyday comfortable ones and the ones for Getting Dressed Up (“I’m saving them for a special occasion.”)
Saving Things For A Special Occasion was a big deal. There was jewelry for a special occasion, dishes for a special occasion, soap for a special occasion.
It wasn’t easy to buy grandma gifts. She had such a collection of everything that it seemed silly to buy her another set of earrings or another blouse. So we would often buy her disposables – things like soap and shower gel and perfume that she could use and even use up.
It wasn’t until right before she died that we realized she had a collection of gardenia shower gel – her favorite – that she had never opened. It lay unused, beside the empty box of Irish Spring soap, the kind you can get at a discount if you shop smart and wait for a sale.
She had been “saving it” and finally she ended up giving it back to us so we could use it ourselves (“You might as well. Why bother waiting for a special occasion?”)
Recently we’ve had more guests at my house so I’ve been using the pretty dishtowels more often.
And I’ve found that thanks to my aggressive paring down, I have a lot fewer pretty towels than I might have thought. They don’t last for eighteen years, either, I can tell you that much.
I’ve started thinking that I might actually have to go out and buy my own dishtowels but that seems like such a sacrilege that I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to do it.
The other day I went on a quest to find new dishtowels in my house. I was sure they were boxed up somewhere, forgotten.
I tore apart cabinets, closets and drawers and found some ultra thin towels with long, colorful stripes going through them, sort of the pretty counterpart to my aging white ones, which had also been my grandmother’s.
Right before my grandmother died, she started giving everything away. She’d been engaging in some odd behavior, one of those oddities being a compulsion to sort through every jewelry box and every drawer looking for things to give to people.
Some she kept specifically for me. Some she gave to my mother. Some she slated for various cousins or goodwill.
There didn’t seem to be a particular rhyme or reason to this except that she prefaced everything by saying, “Here, I want you to have this, but if you don’t like it just give it away.”
She wasn’t being dramatic or woeful. She just stated it as fact. We could take it or leave it.
Every time I visited her she would take me into her bedroom and dump entire boxes of jewelry onto the bed, mismatched earrings, tangled necklaces, pieces of things that might have been useful once. She sorted through these things so many times that they became an unmanageable mass, but she picked through it all patiently trying to match pieces that she could then ask me if I wanted.
Trying to balance honesty with sensitivity, sometimes I said, “No, that’s not really my taste.” And sometimes I said, “That’s pretty, thank you.”
You should know that dishtowels weren’t the only thing my grandmother stocked me up on. I have never lacked for jewelry a day in my life. Earrings, pins, rhinestones, hair clips. I collected and divested myself of much of that, too.
Also Christmas ornaments.
I could personally decorate the entire Rockefeller Center tree with the number of Christmas ornaments boxed up in my attic.
So taking yet another pair of rhinestone earrings from her seemed unnecessary. Then again, that depends on how you define “necessary”.
In the end I took her jewelry and her gardenia soap and her silverware, because it made her happy, and that was necessary.
She tried to give me her clothes, too. I stood in her bedroom day after day trying on blouses and t-shirts and pajamas so I could “just see if it fits.”
My grandmother was all of four-foot-nine and eighty pounds.
No matter what I tried on, it had no intention of fitting. That would prompt my grandmother to say, “You need to go on a diet, huh?”
“Just lose a little weight,” she would tell me.
“I’ll try,” I said.
I took a few of her shirts, too, optimistically declaring that they almost fit, and I was going to lose some weight so they would be perfect soon.
I also took some dishtowels.
She had a drawer full of them, the super thin kind, the ones with the stripes. They had never been used. They were folded into perfect pleats. They smelled like my grandmother’s drawer, a smell I have never been able to identify or recreate. It’s some combination of sachet and soap that is uniquely grandma.
Once she knew I liked the towels she went on a mission to uncover more of them. She had a surprising number of thin, striped towels, which shouldn’t really have surprised me given her collecting habits. I think the most surprising thing was that there were some in one drawer and some in another, some in the chest and more in the dresser, a few in the armoire and a couple lining a box in the closet.
She stacked them into neat piles and I took them home.
It’s been a year and a half since she died and I haven’t used the towels. But recently, as I was rooting for new pretty towels and I came across the striped ones, I felt like I had struck gold. I pulled one out to bring it down to the kitchen.
But the scent caught me. It smelled like my grandmother’s drawers, soap and sachet and familiarity and love.
I unfolded it from its perfect pleats and held it up to my face. I inhaled the scent of grandma and remembered.
Sunday sauce and Christmas presents. Trips to the circus and bedtime stories. An endless supply of jewelry, whether I wanted a new pair of earrings or I needed a gift for a friend. Late nights talking over cheddar goldfish and wine, sleepovers at her house well into my 20s.
How she taught me to iron shirts and fold bed sheets.
How she bought me anything that had a teddy bear on it.
How she always told me to “go out and have fun” and asked me if I was sleeping enough.
Her patience as I complained about boys and my parents.
The first job I ever had working in her flower shop.
Staying awake to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, listening to her rant about how badly the Yankees were doing and how they should “throw the bum out”.
Teasing her for being a collector, reassuring her that yes, I had enough dishtowels.
The thin, striped one is still in my closet. Turns out it wasn’t a dishtowel after all. It was a lifetime in a scrap of fabric, a memory in stripes. And you don’t push water around on damp dishes with that.
I folded it again, though not nearly as neatly, along the decades-old creases.
And put it away.