The Keeper of the Napkins
After my grandmother Ruth passed away, I drew the figurative short straw, and the task fell to me to clean out her home here in North Carolina before it could be put on the market. The items I discovered while emptying the house made me wonder at my grandmother’s penchant for accumulating material possessions. She always fancied beautiful clothes, wanted to maintain appearances, and seldom would reveal how old she was – even to close friends. She lived her life her way, and when she died, an obituary underneath a portrait of her in a smart suit jacket made no mention of her age or date of birth, in strict accordance with her wishes. Ruth was a Southern woman, and she had her notions about things.
From the outside, her house was a nondescript patio home like others on its cul-de-sac. On the inside sat a veritable museum paying tribute to women’s fashions. For the price of admission – in this case, several months’ worth of work – I uncovered objects I hadn’t known existed, such as the hairspray shields still fresh from a beauty supply store. Their purpose, as best I could determine it, was to protect the user’s eyes. Clearly, my grandmother had lived a different sort of life from my own, as I had never seen – much less owned – such an item.
“I look like a haint!” my grandmother had been known to exclaim, if anyone dared try to take her picture when she wasn’t dressed to the nines in a perfectly accessorized outfit with her hair professionally styled. (A haint, for the uninitiated, is a ghost, spirit, or apparition in the vocabulary of the South.) Then she might proceed nonchalantly to asking my mother: “Ann, which pair of my beads do you want when I die?” This was despite being in relatively robust health at that point.
If she found something she liked, it was customary for her to purchase it in more than one size and color, whether it was a sweater, a pair of high heels, or a jacket. Just in case. She had so many garments, handbags, scarves, and belts, they flowed from the closets like the waters of the Catawba River and had to be hung on racks out in the rooms. I held onto 20 pairs of her shoes and donated the other 82 pairs. There were also identical red-sequined coats in differing sizes in a spare closet. I couldn’t fathom anyone’s wardrobe requiring one of these garments, much less multiples. Those, too, went to Goodwill.
Some people have skeletons in the closet; my grandmother had evening jackets. Summer 2014 was a long one for me. In the event my grandmother had harbored any family skeletons rattling their bones among the racks of clothes arranged like an upscale boutique, I have no doubt she would have made the most of them. Draped them in a few of her costume-jewelry necklaces. To borrow from Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, not a Southerner, she would’ve taken the skeleton out of her closet and taught it to ballroom dance.
Unlike other Southern women who prided themselves on heirloom recipes, I never knew my grandmother to cook, which meant she ate most of her meals in restaurants and ordered lots of takeout. She was a study in inconsistencies. Lavish in her spending in some ways; frugal in others. I lost count of how many packages of condiments from fast food places I found in her refrigerator, on countertops, and in cupboards. Wherever she went, she acquired extras of all the free accoutrements available to her: little packets of sugar, plastic utensils still in their sleeves, and paper goods. She could have launched an eponymous chain of convenience stores with this inventory. Maybe called it Ruth’s Cabinet. She once directed the women of the family to prepare a large quantity of iced tea at a funeral gathering, opening pack after small pack of sugar from her cache, not needing to provide a full bag of sugar from a grocery store. Sometimes, when she went out to eat, she casually drove her dining companions to the verge of crawling beneath the table with embarrassment. She accomplished this by negotiating with the manager the purchase of a set of salt and pepper shakers right off that same table, if the style was to her liking. I wish she were here to embarrass me one more time.
There were plenty of objects I wanted to save from the house for nostalgic or aesthetic reasons, but my husband was strictly practical in what he collected for himself. Brian gathered drinking straws, cups, and aluminum foil. He also stacked a tool caddy with piles of paper napkins. And what a bounty of napkins it was! Plain napkins, napkins with the names of sandwich shops, personalized napkins, purple napkins, peach napkins, and napkins featuring Scottie dogs wearing ribbons around their necks. Let’s not even talk about the holiday napkins with their snowflakes and red-and-green stripes, Christmas trees, and Thanksgiving turkeys: a flurry of paper ephemera. I may never need to buy napkins again, I thought. Like a tidal wave, the napkins threatened to overtake me.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America notes the estate of one matron in 1654 with 18 tablecloths and 66 cloth napkins. This colonial woman had nothing on my grandmother and her paper napkins. Thank goodness my grandmother never got serious about her napkin hoard, because I’m afraid to think how far it might have gone. Hers was not a curated, organized collection of tens of thousands of napkins with no duplicates, like that of some of the paper-napkin collectors I discovered while doing an online search to see how common an affliction napkin fixation is these days. Now, those ladies’ napkins would make even my grandmother’s stash seem paltry. I am grateful she stopped when she did.
In the following months, we worked our way through the haul of napkins we’d brought home. One day, leafing through what remained on our dining room table, I plucked out a baker’s dozen that caught my eye. They were crisp white paper napkins with the Maisons-sur-Mer logo in blue, loosely translated from the French to mean houses-on-the-sea. These napkins were in pristine condition. Maisons, as we all abbreviated it, was the South Carolina beachfront condominium building where my grandparents owned a vacation unit when I was a child. Its ocean view from the balcony elevated it to mythical status in my mind. My mother remembers watching from that balcony one Fourth of July a “spectacular” fireworks display streak the sky. Those were the pyrotechnics to which the colors of all future ones down through the years would be compared and found wanting.
The condo was the place my younger sister surprised our parents by first pulling herself to a standing position as a toddler, using luggage for support. Judith was beginning to learn to walk then. I wanted to remember more, so I asked my mother to unearth an ancient picture album. Recorded sounds of shorebirds and rolling waves played on my computer as I flipped the adhesive pages of the disintegrating album. The rooms were outfitted in 1970s beach décor with a gold, green, and white color scheme. I still have the cactus-shaped lamp from that era. In a picture from 1978, I was four years old and stretched across the green-and-gold sofa wearing a ruffled two-piece bathing suit. An imposing arrangement of orange silk flowers occupied the table in front of me, my beaded child’s purse emblazoned with the words Myrtle Beach resting nearby. I don’t recall it, but I wonder if my grandmother brushed my hair in that condo. She had a gentle way of gathering my hair behind me for brushing. This is the grandmother everyone says I resemble in appearance. We have the same dark hair, the same eyes, same nose.
In other beach place snapshots, ceramic monkeys perched around the rooms, surveying the scene. My grandmother always liked monkeys – not real monkeys, which she wouldn’t have cared for. She wasn’t sentimental about animals, even if she did tolerate my grandfather’s affection for his cats when he was alive. Inexplicably, she favored anything with a monkey motif: monkey decorations, monkey wallpaper, even shoes with monkeys on them.
The condo was sold eons ago, but my grandmother kept the Maisons napkins for some 36 years. The beach condo napkins survived several household moves and numerous life transitions. They were manufactured to be disposable, yet here they were, evoking the past. Now, I had them. I wondered if she ever succumbed to temptation and retrieved the napkins to wipe crumbs from the kitchen after polishing off her favorite sweet coffee cake from the farmers market, or to blot her rose lipstick, only to reconsider and put them back unspoiled.
Unless you’re planning a party, or you’ve run out of them, napkins aren’t something many of us think much about. Most people focus on a napkin’s utilitarian purpose of maintaining cleanliness when eating. Diving deeper, this small square of paper had a symbolism that belied its humble role. Perhaps my grandmother simply forgot the beach condo napkins were there, but they may also have been important mementos, their significance known only to her. She was one of 10 children born in a farm family of modest means. I imagine the ability to purchase a vacation home signaled to her she had arrived in life, transcended her early economic hardship, and the napkins represented that ascent. Safeguarding this bounty of trivial artifacts gave her a feeling of security as an adult. A sand castle with turrets and walls nothing could wash away.
I hate to admit it, but my grandmother may have been on the right track. If you save them, paper napkins mark time, or memories of a special place, in a way cloth napkins don’t. Cloth napkins are thought of as more elegant, formal. What paper napkins lack in elegance, they compensate for in fun. Choosing the right paper napkin with the appropriate theme can be a whimsical exercise. I like to think my grandmother found her truth: Having a lot of something, no matter whether it was clothing or napkins, made her feel good. Or prepared, at least. When it came to stocking a closet with clothes, a pantry with paper products, or to life in general, she was wise enough to know the value in having a backup plan. Regardless of the reason she saved them, the napkins made it this long, and I won’t be the one to use them. Although, if I ever wanted to test my creativity, I think I could repurpose them into some really eye-catching kitchen art.
Somehow, her home got emptied that summer. I don’t resent the short straw after all. Fact is, I was the lucky one to have this time in her house, among her belongings. From memory, I inhaled the smell of salt air on the beach one more time, felt the softness of the napkins in my hand. I thought about what is transient, and what lives on. I’ll be the keeper of the napkins. I tucked this inheritance gingerly in a drawer. After all, I am a Southern woman, and I have my notions about things.
Hope Yancey is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hope is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte and Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Charlotte Observer and elsewhere. She finds herself curiously drawn to displays of paper napkins in stores, but it’s probably an understandable compulsion, considering.