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  • Writer's pictureJayne Lisbeth

Dish Towel Tales

                     




As I was working on one of my favorite tasks, hanging wash out to dry on my clothesline, I  began to reflect on my collection of dish towels.  They look so pretty, dancing on my line with the spring breezes. I wondered, when, exactly, did this love affair with dish towels, begin?

Immediately, a memory flashed into my mind. I was about six years old, in our beautiful pine-paneled kitchen in Great Neck, Long Island. With its warm shades of reds, amber and burnt sienna pine,  brightened by spears of sunlight, this was my favorite room in the house. Hildegard, my “other mother” was washing dishes as she sang a German tune. I was chattering away, as usual. Hildegard turned her head to look down at me, absolute love lit up her bright blue eyes. She held a plate in her hand, embraced by a dishtowel, as she replied to me, “My Liebchen...” ZAP! A memory was born and attached itself to my heart forever. I loved Hildegard with all my  being.  In an instant I had been bitten by the homey loveliness of dish towels by remembering Hildegard washing dishes.

My dish towel journey didn’t begin immediately.  In 1967 I was a 17-year-old-bride and my love affair with dish towels had not yet begun. Those desires and longings took years to form. I was too busy as a bride strapped for funds to worry about anything other than the absolute necessities to feather our nest. More than one set of pretty sheets was a luxury. I had been showered with wedding gifts before the wedding. Dish towels were considered to be too mundane an item for laying the foundation of a new home with my-then husband. 


Nearly sixty years later I was in my yard admiring my collection of dish towels, strung on my clothesline and fanned by spring breezes. I realized that my dish towels, or tea towels, as my dear

friend, Fran called them, were actually stepping stones to my history. I can trace the roads of my life following the trail of dish towels on my clothesline. These dish towels are displayed across my kitchen cupboards, except when it is wash day.  I am running out of cupboard space on which to grace my textile postcards from past loves, friends and places.

I realized not only our kitchens change through the years, but our worlds change.  How many young women, starting out in married life today, would even dream of placing dish towels on their bridal registry? Who hand washes anything, even the most delicate of items? Who even has a clothes line now? 

I laugh at the memory of my grandson discovering our backyard jungle. He and my daughter, her wife and their two children were visiting from Philadelphia, where I am certain no clotheslines exist. “Granma”, he said, looking at this strange shaped thing on a pole in the midst of our fern forest, “what’s that?” I chuckled to myself, knowing he probably thought it was some sort of sci-fi antenna. In a way, maybe it was?

     


My past interrupted me once again as a vision of the tenements in Brooklyn came to mind. Every tenement window held a line across the alley which could be operated by pulleys. On wash day all the lines would be filled, telling the identity of tenement renters in their homes: diapers, men’s overalls, women’s “unmentionables,” children’s tops and pants, skirts, Sunday dresses, tiny socks, aprons, sheets, all swam in the same ocean of breezes stretched across the alleys from one tenant’s window to another. Along with the laundry shared, gossip was tossed back and forth. “Did you hear Maria is pregnant again? Her fifth!”  “Oh, well, you know, they’re eyetalians, Catholics. Too many kids than they know what to do with.” 

“ I see the Irish are up in arms again, something about being charged more than the English for cabbages.” From around the corner sang another woman, “Jeeze!  Enough with the cabbages already! The whole place stinks of it.” All the women chimed in with musical laughter, still echoing in my ears. 

How different Brooklyn was then, with its trove of immigrants enhancing New York to the Brooklyn of today, where my son and his family now live.

“Granma?” my grandson asked again, raising me from the depths of the past. I explained what this strange object in our yard was. “Don’t you have a dryer?” he asked. 

“This is better than a dryer. It’s more efficient, your clothes smell sweeter, and you’re saving electricity.” I knew that would get him. My daughter raises their children to be green saviors of the planet, aware of our environment, as well as activists in society. “Oh, wow. Cool,” he said admiringly.

Later that day in the kitchen Tim replaced the dish towels to their respective places.  My beloved agreed that I had an admirable supply of dish towels.  The ones on the kitchen cupboards weren’t all of them. I had dish towels tucked away for everyday use, as well as for holidays and special occasions. My kitchen cupboards were overflowing, as well as our linen closet. 

“Jaynie, so, what was your first dish towel out of all these? When did you start collecting them?”

His question pulled me up short. When did I start gathering my dish towels like a stamp collector who prizes their stamps?  I looked at the array of colorful fabric. “You know, I don’t really remember. I couldn’t afford anything other than utilitarian items until I moved to California in 1978. There, I met my dear friend Robin who introduced me to the joys of farmers markets where everything from vegetables to utensils, old magazines, posters, art and even dish towels were sold.


“I guess my addiction began in California.”  I pointed out my Fisherman’s Wharf 1981 dish towel calendar, which made me think of San Francisco Sourdough Bread and the joyous bustle, laughter and screams of venders and children. I remember how the seagulls’ wings caught the sun as they dove towards fisherman's tables, laden with fresh fish.  It all came rocketing back.  How I love, and miss, San Francisco. 

  My dish towels had become a road map to my travels. They were mementos from my past, brightening my history and my love of life.  I returned to the present and answered Tim. “I guess the earliest ones were from friends who knew I loved them.” I pointed out the antique, hand-embroidered dish towels my friend Goose had given me.  She had discovered them when she and her husband were cleaning out her parents’ huge old Victorian home, stuffed with antiques, glass, porcelain, tablecloths, and of course, dishtowels. From the 1940s, each tea towel had been painstakingly created with needle and thread. 



One was an embroidered blue teapot, another a laughing, dancing carrot. Then, there were two dancing heads of cabbage displayed next to another depicting bright red tomatoes. The most special one was a farm girl with a cupid’s bow mouth wearing a long apron, holding aloft her own dish towel, embroidered with the word “guest.”  My eyes took in each one of these special little homey additions to my kitchen. I realized these dish towels were the key that unlocked not only memories, but my interests in life. 



The King Arthur Flour dish towel with its famous knight on a horse, spoke volumes of my love of baking. I had discovered that towel in Vermont, at lunch with my dear sister Sherrie, at the King Arthur Flour Mill. That led me to Sherrie’s gift, “Sisters Before Misters.” This was  cherished as it proclaimed Sherrie and I as more than sister-in-laws. We were now officially sisters. The sisterly dish towels led me to my Vermont treasures, where I flourished when married to Sherrie’s brother. I blossomed throughout my years in those Green Hills of Vermont.  



Other dish towels were garnered from our travels. My Oregon dish towel is a memorial to our little nest above the Siuslaw River in Mapleton, Oregon. I moved across the cupboards. The green Brooklyn tenement building dish towel was a gift from my son and daughter-in-law. Napa and Carmel-by-the-Sea brought me back to California, and to Robin. She had gifted me with the acknowledgement of our long friendship with the “Flowers of Friendship” dish towel, adorned with sweet bouquets. 

  I discovered the Mermaid towel in Gulfport. I  loved it so much I bought several, giving them to mutual dish towel collectors. Onward across the ocean to Spain, where I purchased three brightly colored Barcelona scenes, bringing back all the memories of the Gaudi homes, the dancing girls in native costumes, and the famous La Sagrada Familia Church with its beautiful stained glass windows. 



Magically, I had discovered yet another spot on which to hang my artistic towels: my oven handle. The three towels there proclaimed my love of birds and the beach. My stove was now adorned with happily singing birds and my “Don’t Worry, Beach Happy” towel.

Finally, my last purchased dish towel colors were so bright and fresh that it was obvious this was the latest addition to my decor. On the dish towel, a colorful map depicts the squares, cemeteries, plantation homes and shops of Savannah, which we had recently visited with my sister and her sweet hubby,  Bill. I had stealthily purchased two Savannah dish towels, one for Sherrie, who shares my dish towel heritage, and one for me. I loved surprising her. Doing so is a gift in itself.

So what do all these decorations mean, these postcards from my past strung across my kitchen?  They bring me all the way back to Great Neck, Long Island, to Vermont and California, across the Atlantic to Barcelona and back home again to Gulfport beaches and mermaids, and the historic district of Savannah. 



These dish towels are testaments to my travels and life which brighten my world.  When I’m gone they’ll just be another one of “crazy moms” obsessions. Chuckling in the background from wherever I have gone, I’d have to agree.

Memories, from favorite bread recipes, friendship, love, wonderful trips across the ocean to beaches close by these little decorations swarm with color and history. They are the stepping-stones to my life and the open book to my heart. 

  Use them for drying dishes?  I wouldn’t risk harming them. They’re part of my history, preserved in artful decorative textile treasures. They will remain on my clotheslines and in my kitchen proclaiming my existence. I hope my children will be able to read between the lines.






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7 Comments


rmrogers22
Mar 26

I adore reading your blogs Jayne. This one took me take back to when we were raising kids together. Baking bread and using one of your special dish towels to cover the dough. Your writing is always so descriptive and I get engrossed in your story writing. Love this one as I do all of your blogs. Keep writing!!!

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Jayne Lisbeth
Jayne Lisbeth
Mar 27
Replying to

Your words mean so much to me, as yes, you have been my dear friend ever since our oldest kids (now 47!!!) were babies. You know my heart, and I so appreciate your very positive comments. Hopefully next time we visit we'll bake bread together again. Your special gift to me of my "Friendship" dishtowel awaits our next cooking session together! xoxo

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cathyandolivia
Mar 23

I too, have special dish/tea towels draped on my kitchen and bathroom cabinets. A lovely idea I copied from you. I have the towels, as well as magnets and bottle openers to remind me of people and places I have loved over the years. A very sweet story Jayne.

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Jayne Lisbeth
Jayne Lisbeth
Mar 24
Replying to

Thank you, dear Cathy. We learn so much from one another, and I have learned so much from you to be free with decorations, from magnets, to bottle openers, to crazy stuff I collect and stick on my refrigerator, to remind us of all the places we've been and the people we've loved. xoxo

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Jayne Lisbeth
Jayne Lisbeth
Mar 22

Thank you, dear! You of all people are familiar with my kitchen and all the decorations!!


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Dr Greg LeSar
Dr Greg LeSar
Mar 22

Beautiful Jayne!

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Jayne Lisbeth
Jayne Lisbeth
Mar 24
Replying to

Thank you, Dr. Greg!! xoxo


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